Miami Beach Causeways Will Be One Lane Only as Memorial Day Traffic Nightmare Returns

On normal weekdays and especially around 8 or 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday nights, the Julia Tuttle and MacArthur Causeways clog up and force drivers to wait in long lines on the only major arteries onto the barrier island. Because Miami has gone a century without proper urban planning or an adequate public-transit system, the only way to cross these causeways is by car or bus.

So what if there were more cars, extra cops, holiday tourists, and fewer driving lanes? Does that sound fun? Why is your nose bleeding?

Well, that's exactly what's set to happen again this weekend. Memorial Day is upon us in just a few days, and in response, Miami Beach Police say that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, the Tuttle and MacArthur Causeways will be pared down to a single lane of traffic so cops can scan license plates using one of their controversial readers to catch wanted criminals trying to head into town.

"Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, both the MacArthur Causeway and Julia Tuttle Causeway will be funneled down to one lane to ensure the readers capture each license plate," MBPD spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez tells New Times. "We encourage visitors coming to Miami Beach this weekend to arrive early, park their vehicles, or use a rideshare option." MBPD has been using tag readers on the causeways during Memorial Day weekend since 2012.

Similar to past years, Rodriguez says, the city will use "close to two dozen" plate readers throughout the city over the weekend, including fixed readers scanning the plates of every vehicle that crosses into the city. (The readers check for things such as open warrants in addition to logging the travel history of every person who crosses the two major causeways into the city.) Beach PD says the technology is integral in helping track down criminals, but civil liberties groups have long warned that the data can be hacked, used to track innocent people, or used to intimidate activists or government critics.

The city will also close streets and require proof of residency again. Ocean Drive will be closed to vehicular traffic this Friday through Tuesday morning. The city will also implement a "traffic loop" from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. through most of South Beach: Traffic will flow northbound on Collins Avenue to 16th Street and then southbound along Washington Avenue. If you live within the loop, you can access your neighborhood with a photo ID or other proof of residency. (The Venetian Causeway will be closed to nonresidents.)

Earlier this year, multiple news agencies reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had signed a deal to access the "commercial" plate database for Vigilant Solutions, the main plate-reading tech supplier in the nation. (Vigilant supplies Miami Beach's units, but it's unclear how easily ICE can access the Beach's info, if at all.)

MBPD in 2017 provided New Times with a copy of its plate-reader data-storage policies. According to the department's standard operating procedures, plate data is deleted after 12 months unless cops request the department retain the information. MBPD rules also bar the data from being shared with or sold to outside firms such as repossession companies.

As of last year, Miami Beach's plate-reading dragnet was massive. MBPD says its mobile, car-mounted readers alone sucked up data on 11.3 million license plates in 2016. Miami Beach has an official population of only about 92,000.

The traffic change comes as part of the Beach's seemingly never-ending crackdown on Urban Beach Week, the holiday celebration that traditionally draws tens of thousands of black tourists to town. And with large crowds of black tourists come loud complaints from elderly, white residents and property investors, who claim crime spikes during the party and demand restrictive police action.

In years past, activists have claimed the city has tried to crowd out Urban Beach Week revelers by scheduling an air show with fighter jets the same weekend. Civil rights groups and Urban Beach Week fans point out that despite the fact that Miami Beach sees its share of loud music and drunken chaos every weekend, the only event that residents and politicians try to shut down regularly happens to be the majority-black event.

But in the past few years, Miami Beach Police have also greatly increased their presence during both spring break and Urban Beach Week in particular. Last year, the city banned items such as coolers and speakers on the beach during spring break while also stationing license-plate readers along the causeways and on police cruisers.

Beach officials have already made some decisions that have upset civil rights advocates. Earlier this year, the city announced it would begin harshly ticketing "loud cars" for noise violations during spring break. In response, the Miami chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wrote the city an open letter begging officials to reconsider, because the policy effectively gave cops a free pass to jail black visitors during Memorial Day weekend. 
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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