Transit officials call for test of ferry service on bay
By Dan Dolan
After months of new study and a decade of debate, Miami-Dade transit officials Monday recommended the launch of a three-year, $29.5 million test of ferryboat commuter service on Biscayne Bay.
In a report sent to Miami-Dade County commissioners, the Metropolitan Planning Organization said five-day-a-week express ferry service linking downtown Miami with Haulover Park on the north and Matheson Hammock Park on the south could significantly reduce rush-hour congestion on the region's roads.
"I think we should try it," said José Luis Mesa, head of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees mass-transit issues in Miami-Dade. "We're estimating this will have some very positive impact on traffic. But the proof is in the pudding."
That's why the agency wants to try a test project before launching a full-blown operation, which could include expanding service to Aventura and two other northern stops, Mr. Mesa said.
But before the project can progress, it must be approved by the county commission's transportation committee, scheduled to meet Wednesday (3/14), and the entire panel later next month.
If the county commission green-lights the plan, Mr. Mesa said, his staff still has to resolve environmental issues and find funding. He said staffers need to find parking for 200,000 commuters expected to ride the ferries every year.
Metropolitan Planning Organization transportation systems manager Jesus Guerra said sorting out those issues could take 18 months or longer.
"This plan is feasible and viable, but we still have a lot more work to do," said Mr. Guerra, who coordinated the ferry study. "Manatees present a very big obstacle. We have to make sure they're kept safe and still find a way to deliver a waterborne commuter service that is fast enough to provide a viable alternative to automotive travel."
If ferry service has to comply with existing 7 mph speed limits designed to protect slow-moving manatees in certain sections of Biscayne Bay, the trip would take too long, Mr. Guerra said. Government test runs at 30 mph indicate the trip from Haulover Park to Miami would take 59 minutes. The Matheson Hammock Park-to-Miami leg would require 28 minutes. Those times provide a "reasonable" alternative to taking a car, Mr. Guerra said.
Mr. Guerra said government is considering deploying a fleet of catamaran-style ferries fitted with a special sonar-based manatee-protection system. He said the county also is looking at hovercrafts, which ride on a cushion of air above the water.
"Hovercraft appear to present no problems for manatees although there is a noise issue," Mr. Guerra said. "We've been told a manatee-protection system is available for catamarans. But we don't know if it would work."
Mr. Guerra said manatee safety is the key to the entire project.
"If we can run service at 30 mph, there's no problem," he said. "If we have a speed restriction, the project simply isn't viable, and it would be a waste of public money to go on to the next steps."
However, Mr. Guerra said three local firms — Dragonfly Hovercraft of Miami, Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi and Miami-based Metro Aquacats — indicate they could provide rapid ferry service and still protect the massive mammals, which are on the US Endangered Species List.
All three companies are interested in bidding on the project, he said. Two firms have indicated they'd be willing to operate ferries but don't want to kick in cash for a pilot project, he said. Dragonfly Hovercraft has said it would operate the service and provide construction capital, Mr. Guerra said.
"At this point, we don't know how we'll pay for the pilot program," Mr. Guerra said. "We'll look at federal, state, local and private funding or a combination of those things. But until we know the vessels are appropriate, we won't pursue funding."
In the report submitted to county commissioners, the Metropolitan Planning Organization said annual operating costs including maintenance, insurance and fuel could hit $4.5 million. Building ferries, docks, parking facilities and terminals at the three stops could cost up to $16 million.
Chapin Plaza in downtown Miami would be the ferries' main hub, according to the report.
Although the site has limited parking, Metromover is only one block away from the existing dock, which would be modified to handle ferry service. The study, which took six months to complete, also recommends creating a ground-shuttle service to the Brickell and Biscayne areas.
Existing docks at Matheson Hammock Park could handle either a catamaran or a hovercraft, the report says. However, the recreation area's lighting, parking and entrance would need to be improved. A ground shuttle to surrounding areas would also encourage more ferry riders, the report said.
Haulover Park would require a new dock as well as improved lighting and parking, the study found.
Ferries would operate between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. weekdays, according to the report. Boats would leave every 20 minutes during rush hour and at 60-minute intervals during off-peak periods. Officials still haven't determined how much each trip will cost.
If all goes as planned, Mr. Guerra said the ferry service would begin in September 2009.
The concept was proposed first more than 10 years ago.