Miami Beach

As massive construction project looms, Miami Beach studies ‘emergency’ traffic measures

Think traffic in Miami Beach is bad now? Brace yourself, because it’s about to get a lot worse.

The Florida Department of Transportation and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority are ramping up an $800 million redesign of Interstate 395, which will include sections of I-95 and State Road 836 and is expected to take until the fall of 2023 to complete. That means years of lane closures, ramp closures and detours that are sure to clog the already congested MacArthur Causeway. As drivers try to avoid the MacArthur, traffic is also expected to get worse on the Julia Tuttle and Venetian causeways.

And that’s not all. A separate construction project on the MacArthur Causeway — which has already turned the main artery connecting South Beach to the mainland into a maze of orange construction barriers — isn’t slated for completion until July 2020. The Miami Beach end of the bridge had to be repaired due to corrosion that project engineers blamed on personal watercraft speeding under the causeway and shooting salt water at the underside of the bridge.

The traffic complaints from desperate residents have already been loud enough to prompt elected officials to institute speed restrictions for motorboats and personal watercraft.

It’s not yet clear how the new construction project will clash with repairs on the MacArthur Causeway because the schedule for the new project has yet to be finalized. But Miami Beach residents attending a meeting at City Hall on Thursday evening to learn about the I-395 project said they were sure it could only mean more traffic headaches.

“I can’t imagine what the impact of the traffic is going to be,” said Belle Isle resident Geoff Lawton. “It’s not going to be good.”

“It’s going to make people not even want to go to South Beach,” said Paula Roman, a South Beach resident who works in Miami and has already suffered through traffic jams caused by the current MacArthur construction project.

Once it’s completed, the I-395 project should improve mobility in and out of downtown and Miami Beach. A double-decker span will fly over I-95 and provide drivers with a way to bypass traffic and get directly onto the MacArthur Causeway. The signature bridge some have compared to a giant spider will stretch over Biscayne Boulevard, and highway entrance ramps will be expanded.

But that was little consolation to residents at the construction meeting.

“They’re making the bottleneck worse for 20 months before they’re making it better,” said Arthur Diskin, a doctor who lives on Palm Island and commutes to Miami for work. “The MacArthur has been a nightmare.”

Miami Beach officials are already bracing for gridlock and phone calls from irate residents.

“We know this train is coming, no pun intended, we know it’s going to have a big impact,” said Commissioner Mark Samuelian, who sponsored a resolution at Wednesday’s City Commission meeting giving city staff the green light to evaluate several temporary traffic fixes while construction is underway.

One of the ideas on the table is speeding up implementation of an express bus route across the Julia Tuttle Causeway that could give hospitality and hospital workers who live on the mainland a better option for getting to work in Miami Beach.

Rendering of the double-decker portion of SR 836 over the Miami River. FDOT

The city has already set aside $5.1 million for the three-year pilot project, which Miami Beach developed with county transportation officials and which the county could make permanent if it’s successful. FDOT still has to make changes to the inside shoulder of the causeway before the bus can start running, however, and that could take until 2022 to complete. Miami Beach initially hoped the bus could run on the outside shoulder, which would have taken less time to outfit, but FDOT didn’t want the new bus route to interfere with a bike lane on the causeway.

José González, Miami Beach’s transportation director, said there might be a way to temporarily run the new bus route on the outside shoulder “on an emergency basis”. That would require approval from both FDOT and the county, but, González told commissioners on Wednesday, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Miami Beach is also working with Miami-Dade County to evaluate changes to existing bus routes, including adding stops to the Route 150 Airport Express bus near Mount Sinai Medical Center and the Fontainebleau hotel and expanding the hours of operation for county bus Route A, which runs over the Venetian Causeway.

For drivers, the city also plans to ask Miami-Dade County to temporarily waive tolls on the Venetian Causeway during the height of the construction. The county temporarily suspended tolls last fall during a particularly congested phase of the MacArthur Causeway repairs.

Lastly, the city is evaluating a temporary water taxi service between Miami and Miami Beach. The city ran a water taxi pilot program two years ago connecting Sunset Harbour, the Miami Beach Marina and downtown Miami, but, as one commissioner put it, the pilot “failed miserably.” The taxi ran only from Friday through Sunday and cost $15 for a one-way fare. The city ditched the idea after finding that only 144 people had used the taxi in its first nine months of operation.

If the city were to try again, it would likely need to subsidize the water taxi to bring prices down, González said. Last time, the service operated at no cost to the city.

This idea could be a tough sell. Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán said the water taxi would be “a big waste of money and resources” given that it “failed miserably” last time.

“I’m opposed to a public subsidy for that,” she said at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

But the one thing everyone in Miami Beach agrees on is that communication between FDOT, the city of Miami Beach and other government agencies has to get better. When repairs on the MacArthur began last summer, elected officials complained that Miami Beach hadn’t been given enough information ahead of time about the lane closures and other traffic impacts.

“We need much better communication,” Alemán said, proposing an agreement between the various government entities involved in the I-395 project to notify each other about traffic impacts. Miami Beach has a text message alert system to warn commuters about traffic accidents and lane closures, and the sooner the city gets that information, Aleman said, the sooner it can pass it on to drivers.

The only light at the end of a dark and congested tunnel? Some of the temporary traffic measures could end up improving mobility in Miami Beach over the long haul.

“We would deploy them as temporary traffic mitigation solutions but if they work and it’s something used by the community” they could become permanent, González said.