Follow New York’s transit lead: look to ferries plying bay
Written by Michael Lewis on December 5, 2017
We’ve heard the plea for years: if only Miami had rail like New York’s subways we’d unsnarl traffic. So we crafted the Smart plan, six legs of rail to stitch the county together with a system to rival New York’s.
Then two things intervened: we found that rail legs would take many years and cost many billions, and technology got ahead of us – change that in a few years might move us faster for far less than the billions we don’t have anyhow.
That’s when county Mayor Carlos Giménez got off the train. Instead of rail, he said, think of transit that doesn’t need either fixed track or fixed technology. It will be faster to start, cheaper than rail and can be repurposed when technology inevitably catches up with our needs and our price point.
Meanwhile a not-so-funny thing happened: Manhattan added to its subways Jan. 1 with three new Upper East Side stations that had been started back in 1972, but the city ran into troubles so big with the whole system’s delays, breakdowns and overcrowding that six months ago Mayor Bill de Blasio got off the train himself: the city added a fleet of 149-passenger boats that began ferrying New Yorkers who were fed up with the subways.
As the New York Times reported last week, New York added four ferry lines, is ordering 349-passenger boats and is studying express routes because it already has surpassed its use forecast by 700,000, carrying 2.5 million. That’s a pace for 5 million a year, about a quarter of what our Metrorail or half of what our free Metromover carries, a helpful slice of commuter relief.
At its current pace, New York will total $325 million on boats and subsidized costs by 2023, because the $2.75 fare – the same as a bus or subway – won’t cover costs any more than fares support buses and subways.
All transit, road or rail, is subsidized – the question is, by how much? On New York’s water service, it’s $6.60 subsidy per passenger.
The New York experiment of added waterborne transit – they’ve had a free Staten Island ferry for decades – should play into the thinking of Mr. Giménez and others who want a system that doesn’t have to follow one route forever. Nothing is more fluid than water.
Actually, Miami-Dade has been looking seriously at waterborne transit for more than two decades.
When the Marlins Ballpark was rising in an area served only by buses and people truly believed games might fill the stadium, officials talked of a Miami River ferry to bring in fans. It might have worked, too.
Several drop-in-the-bucket water transit moves have already been made.
A private water taxi service is based at Bayside Marketplace. Miami Beach has a pilot program. Miami recently approved a water taxi stop on Brickell Key. An estimated 80% of visitors to the 2016 boat show on Virginia Key arrived via a temporary water taxi flotilla, so the show this week is seeking water taxi permission for five more years.
As road traffic congeals and trip times expand, we should intensify studies of water traffic, not as a principal mode of travel – it can serve only waterfronts – but as a way to reduce car trips.
That would certainly fit both the mayor’s dictum of flexibility and adaptability and the need to take as many paths as possible to keep people moving in Miami-Dade.
A decade ago the former Metropolitan Planning Organization found that we could run commuter catamarans or hovercraft on Biscayne Bay for $13 million to $16 million in hard costs and $4.5 million a year in subsidies on routes from Haulover and Matheson Hammock to downtown Miami. This seems to both underestimate cost and underuse waterways, which could serve many more areas.
Last year, Miami city commissioners were told that county transit officials were studying everything from a “water bus” on a fixed schedule to on-demand water taxis (think waterborne Uber) that the county, the city or both could run. That study is fresh enough to warrant careful review.
All agree we need transit action, in multiple formats. The New York flow on the water makes clear that we should pour ferries into the transit mixture.
Water transit, like every mode, has pros and cons. The big advantages are that we don’t have to lay track or buy right-of-way or compete with cars on streets. We have underutilized surface on Biscayne Bay and the Miami River that is both flexible – route changes require no infrastructure other than docks – and scenic.
That seems to fit well with the new criteria that Mayor Giménez has adopted for train-like buses and could be put into operation simultaneously, and probably at similar costs.
There are cons, of course. Water travel might need more subsidy per rider than buses. Waterways are regulated and we must protect the environment – 7-mile-per-hour limits in manatee zones would be an issue when 30-mile-per-hour travel is optimal for commuters. We’d need more docks. Watercraft would have to fit under bridges at high tide to avoid stalling auto traffic above to make way for waterborne traffic below. And weather is a wildcard.
Each of these cons, however, has a parallel in land travel. There is no free ride.
But in a county where despite heavy subsidies rapid transit lost 6.9% of riders in fiscal 2015-2016, the most recent year on record, while roadways grew more congested, it may be time for Miami-Dade transit to go with the flow.