Despite financial leaks, catamaran ferry transit could float
Written by Michael Lewis on March 27, 2018
A long-awaited study uncorked last week on how catamarans can beat traffic gridlock finds that boats could cut 20 minutes from the time buses clock on a single route but would lose $26 to $28 per passenger.
The 88-page report says a more thorough study is needed but the county’s transit department can’t afford it. The aim is to get funds for demonstration service along the Biscayne Bay route.
The report shows the multiple layers of bureaucracy that must be cleared to power scheduled runs anywhere in the county and then suggests adding a new layer – a county control team – while letting private operators pay to run the service.
Clearly, no private operator of sound mind would set up service without government break-even backing that also offers private profits. The county’s study was not a prospectus – a funding mechanism and terms are left for the future.
Despite the $26 to $28 loss for a trip that the county posits at a competitive fare of $2.25 to $4.50, waterborne transit is appealing in Miami-Dade for multiple reasons, most of which are detailed in the report signed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who was in Asia when it was issued.
One key factor is that little infrastructure is needed to get service flowing. Including buying five catamarans and creating terminals at both ends of the run from Haulover Park just north of Bal Harbour to Sea Isle Marina at the Omni Metromover Station and in between, total capital costs are $3.6 million. Compare that with hundreds of millions for a Metromover or Metrorail link. The bay, after all, is already there,
To our minds, that low entry cost makes a test of waterborne transit a bargain even projecting annual losses of $3.9 million to $4.25 million to carry 150,000 people.
Give a good operator the chance to beat the county’s 150,000 annual on-board estimate through creative pricing and marketing. The county study estimates exactly the same rider total if ticket prices were cut in half, which implies that price doesn’t alter use. We’d love to see a professional operator test and demolish that assumption.
Waterborne transit has long appealed for good reasons:
νIt’s touristic and visually appealing – as the county report says, it’s “more than just a ride.”
νIt would use infrastructure that’s mostly in place.
νIt’s successful in metropolitan areas from Manhattan to Hong Kong.
νIt doesn’t displace other transportation (think of buses or trolleys that take the same lanes that automobiles also need) or require condemnation of properties to build routes.
νIt’s far more pleasant to sit in a boat than a bus – especially our buses. And it could be set up and run by a private operator.
For those reasons county commissioners in February 2017 voted to update prior studies and create a plan for on-demand and fixed-route waterborne transit.
The resultant report focused on a 9.1- to 11-mile voyage from Haulover Park to downtown Miami.
The study also looked at a boat from Miami to Miami Beach, but Beach officials pooh-poohed the idea because their own trials hadn’t worked – a show of hands, please: how many of you ever heard of that Beach boat service or knew how to access it? The best way to kill a new transit service is to keep it quiet.
Studies of waterborne transit began 15 years ago, when what is now the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization found commuter travel on Biscayne Bay was feasible. The next year it did another report. Two years later it began evaluating routes. Then it got bids from operators. But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission demanded so much supervision to ensure manatee safety that the effort was scuttled.
It isn’t just the wildlife commission to get past. Add the Department of Regulatory Economic Resources, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard to the list.
The report, in fact, makes clear that while any operator of waterborne transit could be up and running quickly, it would take years to navigate the approvals process just to be allowed to operate. And then, if the county’s report was followed, any operator would have to satisfy a new county regulatory team created for just that purpose.
If all the hurdles from regulators and estimated losses of six to 12 times fare collections weren’t enough, the report goes on to list others, including bay waters just 1 to 10 feet deep, speed zones, bascule bridges that limit vessel heights, ADA accessibility rules and high diesel fuel costs.
Still, we’d bet that the county could structure a funding deal that would lure ferry runs via catamaran if it had the money. As it is, the report calls for a new $285,400 study and says the Transportation Planning Organization should pay for it, providing yet another pair of barriers to waterborne transit.
This whole thing started, however, at the Transportation Planning Organization. We’d hope that the group – whose governors include the entire county commission – would take up the challenge and keep waterborne transit flowing forward. It’s time that someone demonstrates how we can use our area’s greatest natural asset, its waters, to bring our communities together rather than to separate us.