There is a way around the bridge that divides our city
Written by Michael Lewis on October 1, 2014
A 1942 tune begins “It seems to me I’ve heard that song before.” The lyrics could refer to a bid by Miami’s Downtown Development Authority to keep the Brickell Avenue Bridge from opening for ships at lunchtime.
I’ve heard that song for decades – don’t let shipping disrupt car trips between Brickell and downtown.
It makes sense: the Miami River severs our business core, and getting from one side to the other for lunch is iffy – it works best if the Brickell Bridge doesn’t open for river traffic.
But like a 1942 phonograph record, the song has a flip side – don’t disrupt river shipping that’s so vital to our trade with the Caribbean. And that too makes sense.
We’ve heard both sides of that record for years, without a solution. Now the Downtown Development Authority is talking of suing some agency or other – they don’t know who to sue, but they’re sure someone can fix it.
The problem is, as it has always been, how do we fix it?
The 1980s complaints about bridge openings were going to be solved by replacing the Brickell Bridge, built in 1929 with only two lanes and only 16 feet above the water. The new bridge was to be 24 feet high with six lanes instead of two. A Downtown Development Authority official said in 1991 that it would reduce openings 40%.
The authority had wanted to keep the lunch hour clear of ship openings but the Coast Guard ruled that out. “We had traffic counts done that showed that lunch hour had more traffic than either morning or afternoon peak periods,” said then authority Deputy Director Peter Andolina.
The new bridge arrived in 1995 with five lanes – a sixth was added later – but despite triple the lanes and 50% more height, the bridge remained a business roadblock.
Oh, it did reduce openings 30% to 8,523 a year, down from 12,000 in 1992, the last full year of the old bridge.
But by 1999, as both Brickell and downtown got busier, the same complaints echoed. “The bridge openings are poorly coordinated and the consequences are on automobile traffic,” Stephen Owens, head of Swire, said at the time.
Clark Turner, then Miami’s chief of community planning, explained why: container vessels had to travel at high tide or risk running aground. “There is a 20-minute window for the boat to pass through the river, moving carefully underneath the Metromover and Metrorail, I-95 and State Road 836.” Each of those ship movements, he said, pumped about $56,000 into the local economy – a total then of 5,000 annual cargo movements carrying a value of $3.6 billion.
Fran Bohnsack, then executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, had shipping’s answer to the roadblock: “I think people need to plan ahead so they aren’t late for lunch meetings.”
The next step came right from the title of a 1968 Jerry Lewis film, “Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River.” The Miami River would be dredged deeper, to a uniform 15 feet from the then-current 9 to 11 feet, at a cost of $89 million.
For decades, large ships could only carry 50% of capacity up the river and could travel only at high tide, even if high tide was also high road traffic time. The dredging that ended in 2008 was going to solve that problem, bringing fuller cargo loads.
Whatever it did for shipping, it hasn’t ended plaints that cargo ships force inopportune bridge openings.
In 2007 County Commissioner (now Mayor) Carlos Gimenez called a meeting with the Coast Guard and others to solve the problem. The answer was to balance traffic among river bridges, but the state transportation department said that would require new traffic lanes, with land acquired by condemnation. That was the end of the traffic shift.
So at the Downtown Development Authority’s last meeting chairman and City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff asked “Who can we sue? A study is not the proper thing to do.” The Coast Guard, he said, isn’t cooperating. Same old song.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard all involved work to get an a deal on bridge openings that covers peak business travel without sacrificing shipping, the best we could get is a band-aid.
So far we’ve raised the bridge. We’ve widened the bridge. We’ve lowered the river. But those gains have been more than wiped out by staggering population and business growth in downtown and Brickell, new downtown concerts and museums and sporting events, and the emergence just north of downtown of exciting business and residential hubs.
These have multiplied the need to move more people over the river every day. But we are trying to send more and more over the same old roadways. Adding a bit to the flow at peak hours can’t fix that problem.
In balancing a working river and a working city, time is money for all. And we haven’t expanded capacity.
Worse, we keep developing on both sides of the river with the unwarranted expectation that more people on the same roads won’t slow traffic.
A picture on my office wall from The Cheezem Companies, builders of the first condo on Brickell Key, shows one completed key building. It also shows Brickell with more surface parking than buildings.
That picture is 30 years old – when we were already hearing complaints about Brickell Bridge openings impeding business. Look at Brickell Key and Brickell Avenue today, where bare land is barely seen. Any wonder that raising the bridge and lowering the river haven’t helped?
That doesn’t mean there’s no solution. Think Metrorail and Metromover. As traversing the river by car becomes slower and slower, and as parking costs approach those of South Beach, a reliable rail system has a huge advantage.
In 1998 the Downtown Development Authority was studying the issue. Now the authority is studying whom to sue.
Mr. Sarnoff is right: a study is no answer.
The answer is obvious. As we build more and add more residents with no new roadways we are headed for gridlock. But we do have effective mass transit.
Instead of investing in a band-aid, the development authority could lead a charge out of cars and onto transit that doesn’t use roadways at all.
The authority could not only hype transit but create incentives to use it – maybe lunchtime dining discounts for transit riders, who would pick up a discount card as they stepped off Metromover.
Changing behavior of Miamians who love cars will take time and money. But after spending millions on a new Brickell Bridge, millions to widen it and millions to deepen the river, it’s time to focus on human beings rather than infrastructure.
Let’s look toward a marketing campaign pitched to younger downtown and Brickell residents who would be willing to leave cars behind during business hours. Remember, all the condo construction going on will bring thousands and thousands more of them.
It’s not 1942 or 1968 or 1992 or 1995 or even 2007 for bridge traffic. We’ve heard those songs before. It’s time to borrow an even older one from Duke Ellington: “Take the A Train.”
Let’s get on track.