Aerial transit to ballpark could be home run for community
Written by Michael Lewis on October 4, 2016
A feasibility study has pinpointed cost-effective, no-wait transit for a niche Miami market that would maximize current resources while acting as a pilot for other micro mobility gains.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization’s inquiry that we revealed last week looked at aerial cable transit, a sophisticated cousin of ski trams that would carry riders above both urban roadways and waterways.
The consultants looked at multiple routes but in the end focused on a six-minute trip from downtown’s Government Center to Marlins Park as the aerial line most likely to succeed.
At first blush this seems another giveaway to the Miami Marlins, who got an almost $3 billion – yes, billion – government gift in a new stadium yet saw ticket sales fall this year. They’re just 27th among the 30 big league teams in attendance.
Jeffrey Loria and Company would indeed win big with aerial transit, but follow the study’s reasoning to see why, if this cable line were properly funded, it could actually be a win-win for everyone.
First, this would initiate a reliable transit mode that doesn’t slow other traffic as riders glide, faster and safer than a bus or streetcar, 25 to 75 feet above ground.
If it works linked to the ballpark, it could relieve traffic elsewhere too.
The study notes that to preserve the skyline, Miami Beach officials rejected aerial cable in the city and then from the city to Watson Island. PortMiami officials also said they want no aerial trams. A successful ballpark aerial system could open minds elsewhere.
Further, the Metropolitan Planning Organization limited the study to mid-county east-west trips. A successful ballpark line could fuel aerial transit outside that corridor to encompass other opportunities.
Second, aerial transit to Marlins Park would serve far more than its perhaps 90 events a year.
The greatest gain, the study points out, could be to fill 5,500 parking spaces that the City of Miami built at the stadium that are woefully underutilized. With aerial transit they would be just six minutes from Government Center downtown, offering parking to workers who now drive into the city’s core each day.
The Marlins play mostly nights and weekends. The parking sits empty other times. The study estimates – conservatively – that 1,000 to 2,000 cars a day would park there instead of flowing downtown.
Another beneficiary would be the now-rising MiamiCentral rail station and future All Aboard Florida rail operations, which would be just six minutes by aerial cable car from a trove of parking for passengers and staff.
Other beneficiaries, the study says, would be Little Havana residents who work downtown but lack transit. Plus, the study notes, Little Havana is a highly popular cultural attraction to visitors to Miami who could get there conveniently in six minutes via aerial transit.
Total estimated daily riders on the route: 2,500 to 5,200.
The study says the project would cost $40 million to build and could fund 58% of its operating expenses via fares. Both metrics rank far ahead of other transit we have or propose in Miami-Dade and cost the public far less per passenger mile to build and run.
The study does say, however, that if government is serious about a stadium route – the planners support it – the project needs a more in-depth look, after which it could be built in 12 months, with no expensive right-of-way to acquire and only two stations needed.
The study doesn’t say so, but both stations could rise on government land, so nothing to acquire there either.
It’s not until their final three paragraphs that authors arrive at a key point that should be this transit plan’s touchstone:
“Funding from a mélange of government and private resources would need to be explored. Since [aerial cable transit] tends to be a targeted point to point type service, institutions and communities that benefit most from the improved access might contribute specifically to the project.”
That’s where this aerial link to the ballpark sparkles. Just think about who those beneficiaries to be tapped for funding would be.
For one, Florida East Coast Industries, parent of the developers of All Aboard Florida rail service, the MiamiCentral station and the office buildings and apartments lining the rail route downtown. This would be like building them a 5,500-car parking hub.
Second, the Miami Parking Authority, which paid to build the garages at Marlins Park, operates them and is paid more than $10 per space by the Marlins for every ballgame. The authority also owns and tries to lease the 53,000 square feet of retail in those garages but has yet after five years to reach full occupancy, which means the authority is lagging on raising cash to repay bonds that funded the garages.
And third, the Marlins owners, who would get dedicated transit directly to the ballpark. Moreover, they have a contract with the city to lease every parking space in those garages from the parking authority at just over $10 apiece but can then resell those spaces to the public for as much as team owners want to charge.
That’s all detailed in stadium contracts drawn eight years ago. Depending on the fine points of those contracts, the Marlins owners, more than the city, might be the big winners from parking space sales triggered by aerial mass transit 365 days a year.
This lawyer’s field day in the end might spur a new agreement with the city and county that would allow the team to pay its fair share of its aerial transit parking gains.
There they are, a massive developer, a baseball team and a highly profitable city parking operation, the key beneficiaries of aerial transit to the ballpark. All should be tapped to help fund both transit’s construction and its operating losses.
The study highlighted an aerial transportation niche that now operates in areas as diverse as Manhattan, Oregon, Bolivia and Colombia and is being considered in other urban areas globally. It points out that some federal funds could flow in for the project.
This has too much potential to overlook. Don’t relegate this study to a shelf to rot. It says up to 2 million riders a year could start taking aerial transit to and from Little Havana 12 months from the time a system got a go-ahead.
Look deeper into this and, if it passes muster, negotiate strong partnership contracts. We all have so much to gain.