Ferry service might soon help relieve traffic on causeway
Ferries plying Biscayne Bay between Miami and Miami Beach could soon relieve road congestion at little to no tax cost while becoming tourist amenities.
Despite the image of cute toys ferrying a few people beside lanes where mega-cruise liners carry 3,000 to 5,000 people, ferries can become real transit under proper conditions.
As Miami Today reported, Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins told the Miami River Commission last week that “the first vendor is moving two boats here.”
Note the term “first vendor” – there could be others too.
Volume certainly could support a Miami-Miami Beach line. The MacArthur Causeway carries 30 million cars a year, and many drivers could become ferry customers in the right conditions.
So, under what circumstances would ferry service catch hold as an option across Biscayne Bay?
First, use docks near both major population hubs and key destinations. That would ensure enough potential users. Ms. Higgins cited existing docks that meet those criteria.
Next, make service reliable and frequent. Trips on a standalone boat motoring back and forth, docking to unload and then boarding passengers, would be too infrequent. A ferry line needs boats running at least every quarter hour. It’s like a bus line though it’s on water: the longer the wait, the less useful it is.
The third vital need is the same as for Metrorail or Metrobus: connectivity. Unless you live at one end of the line and work at the other, without connecting to other transit the ferry becomes just a novelty.
Connectivity in Miami means either parking at docks or having convenient transit nearby. The boat can’t be the entire transportation line but is the vital linking sector.
On the other hand, ferries can provide their own connectivity, carrying not just passengers but bicycles and perhaps even mopeds.
While it’s scenic and romantic, ferry service also must be quick, not slow sightseeing but primarily mobility. If you can drive from downtown Miami to a Miami Beach dock area via the MacArthur Causeway faster than a ferry can get you there, the boat won’t be primary mobility.
One plus for ferries: some can zip 24 miles per hour straight across a bay that has no marine congestion, while cars on the more-circuitous 3.5-mile causeway can hit congestion at any moment. Other than in foul weather, the ferry should beat the car.
Ferry pricing can be an issue: Ms. Higgins cites $3 for locals, $5 to $6 for visitors. That far undercuts parking costs in Miami Beach or downtown Miami.
In metropolises like Hong Kong and London ferries are vital. New York, with the Staten Island ferry, is another.
Ferries also thrive in smaller areas. The US in 2015 had 343 publicly operated ferryboats and 305 privately operated, according to the National Census of Ferry Operators taken by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (the government studies everything). Some carry big loads.
Florida, according to the survey, had 798,570 passenger ferry trips in 2015. The whole US totaled nearly 119 million. The top state, New York, had more than a third of the US total, nearly 43.6 million passenger rides a year, led by the Staten Island Ferry.
Ferries can do well with high tourist traffic.
Years ago I commuted twice a week by ferry between Mackinac Island and mainland Northern Michigan, where three ferry lines running three to five vessels apiece conveyed 600,000 tourists to the island in a 10-week season – that’s 1.2 million total trips.
If Mackinac Island’s season were year round, as Miami’s has become, that would total 6 million yearly trips. That’s 20% of the volume of the MacArthur Causeway and could substantially relieve congestion – and visitors would land in Miami Beach without cars, relieving jammed parking there. That would be appealing at even a fraction of these numbers.
A major advantage of waterborne transit is the lack of right-of-way to acquire, roads to pave, track to lay. Dockage and environmental approvals are the key barriers to entry.
So it’s less costly and far faster to set up ferry transit than other modes. There’s only the dock site to change if a route to, say, South Dade was shifted to North Dade. The system is portable.
For those who say the scenic ferries can’t make a dent in Miami-Dade, we have only to look at the cute little municipal trolleys that seemed a fluffy novelty a decade ago but since have been carrying millions of people, luring many from buses.
While that shift from bus to trolley brought no net transit gain, ferries would actually remove people from roads, thus cutting transportation times for us all.
And privately financed ferry services can actually shrink the per-trip cost to the taxpayer for transit, which now has soared to more than $6.75.
That underscores the impact of the continuing county aim to create and nurture waterborne transit. County studies had predicted taxpayer funding for ferries, but private operators now seem willing to do what the county to this point has not been willing to pay for.
Normally, we’d like to pave the way for new transit. In this case, no pavement will be necessary. Just keep out of their way.