More tolls: Virginia Key reverts to tollbooth, scraps parking app

Some 125 parking signs like this one have been removed from Virginia Key as the city of Miami reopens its toll booth on Lamb Road. Linda Robertson lrobertson@miamiherald.com

It’s another toll for toll-weary Miami drivers.

But in this case, it’s worth it.

The old tollbooth on the Arthur Lamb Jr. Road entrance to Virginia Key has been reopened. It will cost drivers $6 on weekdays, $8 on weekends and $150 for an annual pass to get through the gate to the beach, mountain bike trails, 15-acre hammock, Jimbo’s lagoon and the Virginia Key Outdoor Center where you can rent kayaks, paddleboards and bikes.

The booth was shuttered for a year and a half when the city of Miami decided in early 2017 to convert to a DIY parking system designed “To Better Serve You” and eliminate lines and transactions at the booth. But visitors had to have the pay-by-phone app on their smartphones or locate one of the 12 pay-by-plate machines within the park or risk getting stuck with a parking ticket.

To implement that system, the city installed more than 125 parking signs on the tree-lined road as well as at the beach and cycling areas. There was a riot of signs, one every 20-25 yards, and many visitors objected to their intrusion in a natural area.

Cellphone service in the area is spotty, so it was difficult at times for visitors to enter their data or activate the app.

Ultimately, the city decided it was better to have staff members at the entrance to help visitors understand what the area has to offer, give directions and answer questions.

“That island is so big and there’s so much happening we wanted to make sure people know where they are going,” said Kevin Kirwin, director of the parks and recreation department. “There wasn’t enough information available and people were driving in circles.

“We listened to what people wanted and we’re making it more user-friendly.”

The city has removed all the signs and enhanced security monitoring. Cyclists and pedestrians still get in for free “because we don’t charge an entrance fee; we charge a parking fee,” Kirwin said.

Virginia Key is an 863-acre barrier island that includes Miami Seaquarium, Miami Marine Stadium and its basin for rowers, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Bill Sadowski Critical Wildlife Area, Historic Virginia Key Beach, North Point beach and beaches on the south side of Rickenbacker Causeway. Jimbo’s Place — the charmingly ramshackle outdoor bar and smoked-fish joint — closed in 2012 after 54 years and has been replaced by the Outdoor Center and a lagoon for paddlers. The mountain bike trails run next to a beautiful coastal environment.

In the middle of the key is Miami-Dade County’s Central District sewage treatment plant and a 116-acre swath of land that used to be an illegal dump.

The potential for that land as a spectacular park is tantalizing, and residents have been waiting for its cleanup for a couple of decades. They’re still waiting. The county bulldozed some non-native vegetation as part of the remediation process to seal the landfill. Then the land will be turned over to the city. The city’s eight-year-old master plan proposes building four baseball/softball fields, four soccer fields, four tennis courts, a playground, a recreational center and coastal hammock nature trails on the site.

Whenever that opens, it will provide another worthwhile reason to pay to park.

Aerial view of Virginia Key, with sewage treatment plant in the rear.MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

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