Nightmare on MacArthur Causeway

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Nightmare on MacArthur Causeway:

First week of construction created backups and frustration

Social media feeds were full of photos of traffic jams just about everywhere within a ten-block radius of the MacArthur Causeway during the first day of a two-year construction project. When complaints piled up in numbers rivaling the stacked cars, Miami Beach City Commissioners brought the FDOT contractor responsible for the job in for a chat. At this week’s Commission meeting, Commissioner Micky Steinberg said, “The problem is it’s such a big ingress/egress for our community and also there’s work being done currently on the other big ingress/egress now on the Julia Tuttle.”
She noted the time of year, “Right now, it’s summer and it’s awful right now what’s happening. I can only imagine what will happen and how it’s going to be exasperated during the work year/school year beginning and then of course during certain months in our City that’s really more of a situation when we have a season and a lot more people here.”
Steinberg also asked for more accurate time information saying the City advertised hours of work yet FDOT set up an hour earlier, in effect closing a lane of traffic when no one was expecting it. 
Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates said there was an even bigger problem in communication, “Today we expected different closures than occurred,” he said. “There was a period today when we did not expect two lanes to be closed. And they were. So the messaging from the FDOT office was not consistent with the closures that took place today,” he said echoing Steinberg's call for better and more accurate information. 
John Bolton, the FDOT project engineer, addressed Commissioners. “First of all, sorry” before detailing the severe deterioration of the bridge and the necessary work.  “It’s gonna be a lot of pain. It’s not an easy project… The bridge is over 60 years old. The underside is in very deteriorated condition, especially on the east side” where jet skis have sprayed “a lot of saltwater up onto the bridge.” He handed out pictures of the bridge telling Commissioners “That gives you an idea of what I’m dealing with… The beams are very deteriorated, a lot of rust and corrosion.”
While the entire project is expected to last two years, work has been expedited to limit lane closures to a nine-month period. Most of those are single-lane closures. There are, however, points during the project when two contiguous lanes need to be closed for replacement of the concrete bridge deck.
“I understand your concern,” Bolton said. “Basically, you only have six lanes” going into and out of Miami Beach. “At points we’re going to need two of those lanes to do this work.” The first night he said FDOT required two lanes in order to put barrier walls up to delineate the one lane that will be closed initially. “Traffic was horrible. Even worse than I anticipated,” he admitted.
For the single lane work, Bolton said, “We’re going to estimate about a month and a half for each lane so there’s six lanes today, three westbound, three eastbound.” Work has started on the outside westbound lane with work moving to the center and inside lanes before doing the same work on the eastbound side.
“I think when we’re working behind the barrier wall and only have one lane closed, your traffic will be manageable,” he said. “The big impact we have to mitigate is when we close double lanes in each direction.” Each time a double lane closure occurs, it will last approximately six days. To help mitigate traffic problems, he said, “We’re going to move as many as we reasonably can to nighttime operations,” likely from 10 pm to 6 am, Sunday through Thursday nights.
He noted there was a planned two-week double lane closure in mid-August to replace the deck on the westbound lanes. Commissioners asked him to move that date up to avoid back-to-school traffic.

[UPDATE (as of July 30): The double lane closures will start July 31 at 10 pm and run through September 2... longer than two weeks, obviously.]

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Disussion then turned to what the City can do to alleviate problems. Transportation Director Jose Gonzalez said, “One of the things we’ve done is try to adjust signal time, but I will not overpromise that. There’s only so much that can be done with signal timing. We’ve tried to balance the demands of Alton Road traffic versus westbound 5th street, [that’s] quite challenging. What we’ve done is increase the green times as much as possible. We’re up to about two hundred seconds so that’s about three minutes of green time during the peak times, but what we’re finding is no matter how much green time you give, the problem is the bottleneck on the bridge.”
Transporation Manager Josiel Ferrer said “Because it was a westbound closure very close to the City,” traffic backed up into the City. “Along 5th Street what we saw, at least during the day today, looking at a travel time that is normally five to six minutes based on our measurements of travel time was somewhere between the 17 minute and 19 minute average. And then southbound Alton Road which is about a 10-12 minute drive was in the 20-23 minute average... as far as queuing is concerned, 5th Street was pretty much solid all the way to Washington Avenue and Alton Road got as far as about 12th Street. So, it was a great impact with just one lane closed.”
Oates said, “Today was the first day. Our strategies and driver behavior will adjust and that’s important so we’ll learn everyday by what occurs but every time there’s a traffic pattern change, there will also be a period of adjustment, so over the next nine months there’s going to be periods when there’s days like this. As a practical matter, when the traffic bottlenecks because it cannot get through, there’s only so much cops at an intersection can do.”
He said the “modest amount of [staff] resources” deployed for traffic management experience “challenges with managing the exit from the City on any given business day and this is the lightest time of year. We surged those resources today to that area, but if traffic is completely bottled up, there’s only so much a cop can do at an intersection. Our big challenge is to try to prevent people from blocking the box. If that happens you have complete gridlock.”
Oates said he will evaluate the situation on a day to day basis to determine if officers need to be moved from other areas or use “surge resources on overtime.”
Other FDOT projects made the situation worse according to City Manager Jimmy Morales. In addition to work at Alton and 41st Street and eastbound on the Julia Tuttle, he told Commissioners, “They also were doing two maintenance projects – and they don’t give us advance notice of maintenance projects – but in each case those actually resulted in lane closures, one at 41st and Collins and one at 43rd and Alton so it also impacted the extent to which people could use the Tuttle as an alternative.”
Steinberg said, “Even the information we were getting on the one project that we had notice on was inaccurate so we couldn’t disseminate properly to our residents… and then to have all these other projects happening, you know, one hand's not talking to the other hand’s not talking to the other hand so we’re scrambling but, really, we need that information and everybody needs to know what’s going on.”
When she inquired about emergency services, Oates said he wasn’t worried about finding ways to get through. Fire Chief Virgil Fernandez said, “Our problem is more going to be a westbound problem. We feel pretty confident we’ll be able to get to Alton and 5th… In the event that something were to happen [and] the officer in charge feels that because of the gridlock he’s just having too hard of a problem getting there, we’re going to do something similar to what we did with the Venetian Causeway which is we’ll ask Miami to respond from the Miami side. Of course, we would continue to respond and whoever gets there first would treat or take care of the incident.”
Mayor Dan Gelber said, “We’re a barrier island with just a few access points and for a variety of reasons, if we’re not coordinated it creates chaos” for residents and employees coming and going. “It’s really almost disastrous. It is disastrous.” He asked Morales and the City Communications team to increase their outreach to ensure better awareness of the construction schedule, traffic tie-ups, and alternate routes.
Morales said he would also reach out to FDOT to ask “if they can not do any other work other than emergency work and can they limit double lane closures to nighttime?”
Bolton reiterated his commitment to do “as many activities as we can at night to mitigate the impact.”
Gelber emphasized the need for FDOT to communicate accurate information. “We’re telling people something that they’re not experiencing. It’s not just about losing faith in government, it’s about telling people to do things that they shouldn’t be doing… so it’s really important we get it right.”
Steinberg repeated her earlier comment, “I want real timeframes” that include setup as well as construction times.  “Our residents are right to be upset and frustrated,” she said.
Earlier in the day, Commissioners approved a resolution urging FDOT to expedite the necessary work on the shoulders of the Julia Tuttle Causeway to include a temporary discontinuation of the use of bike lanes in order to allow for operation of the Beach Express Demonstration Service anticipated by the County to begin by the end of 2018 as one means of helping ease the pain of the MacArthur construction.
Photo: Eastbound 6thStreet and Alton; Courtesy Mirielle Enlow

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