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It is 12:18 p.m. as the Brickell Avenue drawbridge opens. Vehicles wait on both sides of the span as a freighter pulled by a tugboat passes slowly through the city center. Time ticks by and traffic backs up four blocks. Engine temperatures rise. Knuckles wrapped around steering wheels turn white. Motorists mutter.
The jaws of the bridge devour six minutes before closing. Traffic lights go red and it takes four more minutes before the congestion clears. Drivers are late for appointments. Car horns blare. Language directed at the boat operators turns from colorful to profane. The curse of the bridge has descended on downtown.
"Oh, I'm sure people get mad as hell sittin' there like that," says veteran tugboat operator Norman Hempstead as he cruises downriver. "But it isn't our doing. We're making a living the way we always have on this river. Why didn't they plan all this better?"
That question has been asked lately in meetings of downtown business owners, government bureaucrats, urban planners, and the maritime community. As more buildings rise in the Brickell Avenue area, traffic flow at the bridge has stopped cold at certain hours. "When that Brickell Bridge opens four times between 12:05 and 12:45 in the middle of the lunch hour, you get a real ugly situation," says Tim Prunka, who markets office space in the 55-story First Union Bank building just north of the bridge.
The Downtown Development Authority, which promotes downtown business, recently raised the possibility of prohibiting the Brickell Bridge from opening between noon and 2:00 p.m. on weekdays. River users reacted angrily. Such a prohibition is already in force during rush hours -- 7:30 to 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 to 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, except holidays.
"No way we're going to agree to close that bridge at lunchtime," declares Brodie Rich, a civilian who oversees Miami River bridges for the U.S. Coast Guard. "The maritime community has already made big-enough sacrifices. A lot of those ships can only go out on the high tide, and this could ruin their business."
Something must clearly be done. And soon. The steel and glass corridor along Brickell is among the city's fastest-growing areas. In 1985 only one 356-unit residential building was open on Brickell Key, about five blocks from the bridge at the end of SE Eighth Street. Today four condo towers, two apartment complexes, and two commercial buildings operate there, totaling 1700 residential units and 330,000 square feet of commercial space.
On average, 27,500 vehicles cross the Brickell Bridge on business days, according to Rolando Jimenez, traffic-count manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. With more large projects in the Brickell area either planned or under way, the potential for more problems is at hand. In the next five years office space on Brickell or just east of it, and south to Fifteenth Road, will increase from five to six million square feet, according to Megan Kelly, a DDA board member. Residential units will swell from 6600 to 9100, and hotel rooms will climb from 600 to about 1600. Among the largest additions will be the 86-story Millennium Tower, to be the tallest building in Florida, which was approved by the city commission last week. That building alone will have 1200 parking spaces. "I've never seen this kind of growth in an urban area in my life," says Kelly.
City planners, who review construction plans and make recommendations to commissioners, insist existing roads have the capacity for the expected vehicles. The Florida Department of Transportation agrees. But Tory Jacobs, president of the Brickell Homeowners Association, contends that Brickell Avenue condo owners already have trouble leaving their buildings at times. "I think what we're looking at here eventually is greater urbanization, more like Manhattan, with more people getting around on foot and using public transportation," he speculates.
The DDA and other interested parties have started to consider possible solutions. These include changing I-95 signs that route some Brickell-bound motorists through downtown and across the bridge; making the currently one-way SE Eighth Street two ways from Brickell Avenue to the interstate, and developing electric signs to notify motorists when the bridge is about to open.
Automobile traffic? Not my problem, declares Norman Hempstead, the tugboat operator. "We didn't tell the developers to build more and more buildings on Brickell Key," he says. "The developers created that situation, and the developers can figure it out.