From his condo on the 38th floor of Brickell on the River, William Fitch sometimes watches as tug boats, freighters and yachts flow in and out of the Miami River.
It can be a breathtaking view. But it can also be a reminder to keep a good distance from the Brickell Avenue Bridge, which during rush hour can cause extreme backups that jam traffic for blocks down Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard.
“I avoid it as much as I can,” said Fitch. “I deal with it often.”
Following a surge in development and population, waiting behind the wheel for the bridge at the mouth of the Miami River to rise and fall has become a part of the daily commute those living and working in downtown. With a downtown’s daytime population around 220,000, rush hour traffic often collides with the maritime traffic heading in and out of one of the state’s busiest working rivers.
The conflict has existed for years. But following two record building booms that doubled downtown’s population, a tax-funded business booster agency is pushing aggressively, over the protests of the marine industry, to enforce and expand restrictions on when the bridge can open.
“When you open the bridge during rush hour you shut the city down,” said Richard Lydecker, a board member of the Miami Downtown Development Authority and the founding partner of a firm investigating the bridge’s use pro bono. “It turns the whole city into a parking lot.”
In order to ease the stress the drawbridge places on downtown traffic, Lydecker’s firm is pushing the Florida Department of Transportation and U.S. Coast Guard to enforce and expand rush-hour and lunchtime curfews. The bridge, with a clearance height of 24 feet, is already closed to vessels for four hours each weekday, save for tugboats, federal vessels and captains in emergency situations. If Lydecker is successful, the curfew would be extended an extra three hours.
But some businesses that need to enter and leave the river say the rules on the Brickell Bridge and others down the river already place significant restrictions on their trade that don’t exist on other waterways. On weekdays, during non-curfew hours, the bridge opens only on the hour and half-hour between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Restrictions don’t affect the tugged-in freighters that carry an estimated half-billion tons of product each year, but the river is also home to restaurants, a few fisheries, and two dozen boatyards and marinas.
“I think the bridge restrictions are pretty strong right now,” said John Spencer, a marine consultant who recently sold his equity in Miami’s RMK Merrill-Stevens shipyard. “Any time you restrict the access to the marine facilities on the river you have the potential of losing customers.”
But one of the major problems with the bridge’s use, Lydecker says, is that the restrictions that presumably limit its openings most of the day aren’t being followed by the state’s bridge tenders or enforced by the Coast Guard.
Dennis Fernandez, structures maintenance administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation, insists that the state follows the federal restrictions on the bridge’s openings. Lydecker-Diaz attorneys, however, pored over handwritten bridge tender logs and say they found more than 100 violations during a calendar year.
Lydecker says the logs also showed nearly 700 openings between the hours he proposes as new expanded rush-hour curfew periods due to downtown congestion. Worse, he says the openings weren’t for freighters, tug boats or vessels crucial to the river industry, but mostly for sporting vessels and yachts.
“You’ll sit there and watch some retired dentist on some super-sized yacht or some sailboat with the mast sticking up, and they open the bridge,” said Lydecker. “This doesn’t affect commerce for any of the working people in the city. This is really the mega-millionaires.”
Everyone seems to agree that the rules should be enforced. But like FDOT’s Fernandez, Barry Dragon, chief of the Coast Guard’s seventh district bridge branch, said many of the curfew-period openings are due to the high tide, which allows larger freighters to access the river. He says the potential $25,000 penalty for improperly requesting a bridge opening is also applicable to anyone who refuses to open a bridge for a vessel with the right to request it.
“Every six months, some elected official comes to us and decides they don’t want the bridge opened anymore,” he said, noting that the state, as owner of the bridge, has to request changes to the regulations. “Personally, we don’t care. You can have the bridge owner request it.”
The state-created Miami River Commission has sought out different solutions, including the addition of traffic cops to keep pedestrians from prolonging bridge openings and converting bridge bike lanes back into traffic lanes. Still, Chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre says poor planning and over-development are the real culprits. He believes the Downtown Development Authority is looking to turn the bridge and marine industry into a scapegoat.
“We’re not stupid,” he says.
Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, says the public agency isn’t trying to stifle business, but simply “re-balance” the city’s needs. She’s now got a supporter in U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who on May 20 wrote to the state and Coast Guard.
“The concerns of commuters must be balanced against the needs of maritime commerce, which is the lifeblood of the Miami River,” he wrote. “However … I believe the Coast Guard and Florida Department of Transportation need to revisit the 12-year-old regulations for the bridge and review how existing regulations can be more stringently enforced.”