Miami tackling access challenges
On the bad days, when there is a special event at Miami's American Airlines Arena, or if there is a bad accident in the core business district, the traffic outside the entrance to the Port of Miami can seize up in gridlock that can add two hours or more to a routine trip.
On an average day, trucks bearing sea freight still need to traverse tricky downtown streets to get into the port itself. There, drivers have to use an outdated gate system until the new gates'originally scheduled to be in operation by the end of 2005'are finally open in the fall of 2006.
Those are just the most obvious access problems at the port, where good business that has sent container volumes over the 1 million twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) threshold for the last three years, while at the same time placing a strain on the transportation infrastructure both in and around the port.
The good news/bad news scenario is that trade volumes are continuing to increase, requiring the port to ramp up its capacity and cargo velocity. By the rear 2020 or shortly thereafter, conservative estimates say port volumes will be at 2 million TEUs, and the more aggressive estimates foresee cargo increasing to 3 million TEUs by that time.
What's more, cruise traffic, a major part of the mix at the port, is expected to double over the next 20 years. Then there is the added wild card of a condominium construction boom ahead in downtown Miami, where condo project already in development are expected to increase the current number of 3,000 units to more than 15,000. There are another 15,800 units planned for development, meaning that at buildout there will be an estimated traffic increase of more than 40,000 vehicles a day.
Kim Beatley, a traffic engineer and principal with TranSystems Corporation, which conducted a detailed study of the transportation infrastructure for the port, said all indicators show that Miami and the port are in a period of growth that will continue for years to come.
'The key to our success is the successful management of that growth,' Beatley said at a recent public meeting the port had to examine access issues.
To achieve that end, a broad range of stakeholders working with the port will have to step up to resolve a series of challenges.
Aside from the security issues port officials have had to address since 9-11, port access is the number one issue facing the Port of Miami.
The broad challenges include the need for extensive road improvements outside the port, the development of two or more dedicated freight corridors, and the completion of ongoing improvements within the port.
Immediate challenges. For the near term, Beatley says, there must be road improvements on the main roads connecting I-95 and I-395 to the port entrance.
The east-west corridor from I-95, Northeast 5th Street and Northeast 6th Street, has been slowed by the elimination of an eastbound lane of 5th Street and to a lesser extent by construction work. The cones on 5th Street, placed there for security reasons because of a local college and the federal government-owned property on the street, have reduced daily traffic capacity from 24,000 vehicles a day to only 15,000. Barriers along that route need to be removed, Beatley said, calling for an alternative to the present security practices.
He also noted that a few years ago there was a plan for a connector road on 6th between the port and I-95, but the project was stopped by local opposition.
'I really believe the community should re-examine that,' Beatley commented.
Northeast 1st Avenue and Northeast 2nd Avenue form the primary north-south corridor from I-395. Last year there were some intersection improvements to make truck turns easier, and that has been some help, Beatley noted.
But to really improve access to the port, he said, either the north-south or east-west corridors should be upgraded to become more suitable truck corridors.
'As we move forward, trucks need dedicated and unobstructed access along these four streets,' Beatley said.
He also suggested better coordination between the port and city officials about planned events at the American Airlines Arena, which is immediately adjacent to the port entrance bridge.
Traffic flow is generally adequate for events like a Miami Heat game. But when the area was used for an event besides a game in May, for example, there was not sufficient traffic management and the streets in the surrounding area became severely gridlocked.
The single most serious problem for port access is the current gate system, the traffic engineer surmised. For that, at least, it appears the problem will be solved before the end of the year.
The existing gate has nine lanes: five inbound truck lanes, a car lane, and three outbound lanes. The limited capacity is exacerbated by the short 'stacking' distance between the gate and the port bridge when traffic starts to back up.
Beatley also said the lane design in the area creates problems, such as the need for outboard trucks from the Seaboard Marine terminal to cross all the lanes of traffic to get into the exit lane.
The new gate system, phase I of a long-term gate expansion program, will give the port 16 new gates'10 inbound and six outbound. Eleven of those gates will be fully automated. The new gates are located further in to provide a longer stacking distance, and improved gate technology is expected to speed the processing of trucks moving into the port.
Port officials think the new technology will allow each gate to process trucks in an average time of one minute.
The system was supposed to be ready in 2005, but that was delayed because of new federal standards.
Beatley said the added gate capacity will require added personnel, and stressed it will be critical to hire qualified people and train them properly.
The port has hired a full-time gate manager, a new position at the port, and two assistant gate supervisors will be hired by the time the new gates are operational.
One potential hang up with new port access technology is a plan for widespread use of an automated payment system for truck. The overwhelming majority of port users still opt for manual payments.
Beatley said it is critical for the port community to make the transition to automated payments, and the Port Access Forum he urged everyone on the audience to press the case for that with their customers.
Long-range plans. Long range, there are plans for two changes that would fundamentally alter the port access situation.
The first is the development of the port tunnel that has been under discussion for decades.
The Florida Department of Transportation is spearheading that project, which calls for a tunnel from Watson Island, where I-395 becomes the MacArthur Causeway and crosses Biscayne Bay to Miami Beach, to the north side of the port.
The tunnel will be 3,900 feet long and go under Biscayne Bay to provide a direct link between the port and I-395.
That project is starting to move from a concept to a reality. The state has a short list of potential companies to manage the project and become the concessionaire for tunnel operations. By late July the DOT will issue s final request for proposal with specifics for the project, and potential contractors will turn in final proposals this fall.
By December, the state will select a company and award a contract to build the tunnel. The project is projected to cost $1 billion.
The state has the rest of the main dates in place: Final design work, permits, utilities, and the roadway detour will be done in 2007. Excavation will be done through 2008. The tunnel walls will be put in 2009. The tunnel itself will be completed during 2010. The final roadways and testing will be done during 2011, and the tunnel is scheduled to be operational that year.
In addition to the tunnel, port officials are in the early stages of planning an on-dock intermodal rail yard developed in conjunction with the Florida East Coast Railway.
John Lucas, the FEC's vice president/general manager intermodal marketing and sales, said on-dock rail would eliminating 50,000 truck drayage moves a year and increasing the viability of a north-south intermodal corridor between East Coast ports, Latin America and the Caribbean.
He said the FEC and port officials have developed a preliminary plan for an intermodal yard that would be built on limited space near the center of the port. The facility would operate during the middle of the night, between midnight and 5 a.m., and the FEC anticipates it would move roughly 875 containers a week on a Monday through Friday schedule.
Although the FEC has a preliminary design in mind, Lucas said it is still too early to even provide a reasonable estimate on the timing or cost of the proposal.
Meanwhile, Beatley said officials have discussed ideas like going to extended gate hours like megaports, most notably in Southern California, where trucks entering terminal during off-peak hours pay no fee, and trucks entering during peak daytime hours pay a special charge. That has prompted around 40 percent of all truck moves to be shifted to off-peak hours, more than double the aggressive estimates for the program during the first year.
But Miami has a somewhat unique market for a port of its size, Beatley noted.
Many of the businesses that receive goods through the port are relatively small, typically operating during standard daytime business hours, Monday through Friday.
That could prevent the effective use of extended gate hours, a concept that has proven to be successful at megaports like New York/New Jersey, Long Beach and Los Angeles.
And although an on-dock rail yard could relieve congestions, Beatley said the overwhelming majority of Miami cargo will still have to be moved by truck.
Unlike most of the major East Coast ports, which serve as gateways for markets well beyond the port, for Miami, 65 percent of all freight involves shippers located within 50 miles of the port. That is too close to make rail moves practical.