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Front Page » Opinion » Ferry service might soon help relieve traffic on causeway

Ferry service might soon help relieve traffic on causeway

Written by on November 12, 2019
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.

8 Responses to Ferry service might soon help relieve traffic on causeway


    November 14, 2019 at 1:34 pm




  2. Mark-Anthony Barnes

    November 14, 2019 at 8:34 pm

    Michael, I’ve always loved reading your opinions, and there have been plent with which I have agreed.

    On this one though I’m not sure what plagues the MacArthur Causeway will be solved by a ferry service that traveling end to end across the bay would likely take 20 a 30 min when you consider passenger loading and unloading times.

    This doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful, but to whom? Locals would be uninclined unless they knew before hand that the travel time in a car or bus even, would be more than 30 minutes to go the 3.5 miles.

    What time wish our politicians would focus on are correcting some of the things that are the obvious choke points that are the reasons for so much back up on the MacArthur.

    The main one is Alton and 5th. The current configuration, that involves the Alton flyover has simply become outdated. A few changes to this causeway terminus would provide more relief than any ferry could possibly ever provide.

    Smart changes include

    delineating Alton fly over traffic and posting signage further west that separates incoming Beach traffic sooner than it currently does.

    Rebuilding the fly over to accommodate 2 lanes of traffic one that continues to take traffic north on Alton and one that delivers traffic to a left turn only lane at say 8th st, for traffic heading to west Ave.

    have another fly over continue over Alton and come down at Lenox, with maybe one other one lane artery coming down at meridian. Closing Lenox at 5 th to through traffic on its southern most side so traffic can flow efficiently off the causeway.

    This could possibly provide the now 2 lanes traffic users are squeezed in to right now a continued 3 lane configuration if designed properly. But even if left at two such a flyover would eliminate traffic having to stop at such a heavily used intersection and deliver it further East to far less traveled intersections.

    Boats, ferries, trains , there all good ideas, but other fixes not commonly discussed have the potential to deliver far greater benefits economically and environmentally than any of those solutions could ever possibly provide.

  3. Laura C

    November 19, 2019 at 6:27 pm

    I couldn’t disagree more that locals would be “uninclined” to use a ferry between Miami and Miami Beach. As a Beach resident I would love it and use it! Many people who live on the beach don’t own cars and many who do don’t like to drive to downtown Miami. There are fewer and fewer places to park and it is expensive. A ferry would make it SO much easier to go to a HEAT game, Arsht, Miami Book Fair, History Miami, jury duty – you name it.

    • Mark-Anthony Barnes

      November 21, 2019 at 5:18 pm

      Welll as a long time beach resident my self I do t proclaim to speak for all beach residents but if it wouldn’t bother you or most residents to spend at least 30 minutes end to end going on a ferry across the bay then why not just take the bus which gets you across the bay in 5 minutes flat and 15 to 20 if things are backed up?

      • Laura C

        November 22, 2019 at 11:59 am

        Well as Beach resident who takes the bus occasionally, Mark, I can attest that in NEVER takes 5 mins to go from the Beach to downtown Miami. Going across from the Beach to downtown takes at least 15-20 mins at that is only to Omni. It takes another 10 mins at least to take the metro mover from there to Govt Center or remain on the bus to AAA , Bayside, or downtown. Getting home is another story all together. Buses run infrequently and given there are no bus lanes, are snarled in traffic. I have never gotten home from downtown via bus in less than hour. If you drive, it costs big $ to park, a minimum of $10 during the day and up to $55 at night if you are going to an event. Scheduled ferry service would be a HUGE improvement. And frankly, we are surrounded by water, so why don’t we have ferries service already?

        • Mark-Anthony Barnes

          November 23, 2019 at 2:02 pm

          A Ferry still isn’t going to get anyone across the bay quicker than what it takes us to get there already. So I’m failing to see the benefit. Are we talking about solar powered super racing ferries? You should also know there are speed limits for boats between here in downtown. The limits can get abysmally slow, but for good reason. Because there is a ton of boat traffic as well..

          30-45 min that’s my bet on a ferry ride getting people from the beach to Miami. Anyone who’s done the short hop over to Fischer Island on those ferries, I’m sure ,will let you know that hopes for a shorter trip are a ferry goers fantasy, given it takes the Fischer Ferry itself 20 min going less than 1/3 of the distance.

          The MacArthur westbound in the AM is a breeze. From 5th to the Biscayne exit takes 15 max and Im talking between 8-9 AM. The only place where things get backed up are at the exits onto Biscayne and 95 and is the very same traffic ferry goers would encounter once they got off any ferry. Once the new 395 and 95 intersections are done this “should” improve traffic flows on that end significantly.

          East bound traffic is a whole other story altogether and the real issue there is the layout of the outdated intersection as mentioned earlier.

          The sad thing here is our city, county , and state planners all know that the current Alton and 5th configuration is the issue and have even raised the possibility of rebuilding at least the flyover in the past only to be met with citizen outrage over having no flyover in place from any where between 6 months to just over a year.

          We can’t complain about traffic being bad at Alton and 5th then, when presented with clearly viable alternatives , complain and bury the whole thing in town meeting discussions where false outrage is occasionally prone to overtaking common sense. Yet that’s exactly what would happen if some politician were to seriously suggest rebuilding that intersection. (As it clearly needs done to it)

          A newly configured flyover such as the one I described above would unclog that intersection and relieve the backup it currently causes beach bound drivers most weekday evenings. One just has to imagine what such a new configuration would look like and how it would work and logic should get you the rest of the way.

          Once you unclog it you no longer have 1000’s of cars idling for hours and wasting tons of gas and spewing tons of co in to the air. They can quickly get on the beach to their destination and provide the economic impact all those travelers provide to the area.

          A ferry would be a nice novelty. I’ll admit, it’d be nice to ferry across from time to time as the sunsets and I had time to spare to truly enjoy it. But in the AM I gotta get to work and in the PM I’d still have to figure out what to do after I got off the ferry. As a solution to address the root cause of the MacArthur traffic issue, a ferry just falls flat in my opinion, especially when a fix exist that would have far greater impacts for everyone who makes that trip across the bay not just the few who’d rather boat it.

  4. M Stein

    November 20, 2019 at 11:56 am

    If you don’t own or drive a car then your use of a ferry would not reduce traffic.

    Just how many cars would this remove from the roads and for what distance?

    Seems fewer people are served by water taxi/ferry. If you want this for tourists or as an additional means if connectivity for non drivers then ok. Just say that. Unless it’s just an excuse to secure public dollars for private gain, again.

  5. r pulido

    November 20, 2019 at 1:49 pm