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Ultra organizers vow to avoid opening night's 'nightmarish' exodus

Thousands were forced to walk miles to get to their cars

MIAMI – The organizers of the Ultra Music Festival pledged to increase shuttle bus services Saturday after thousands of music fans were forced to walk for miles to leave the Virginia Key venue on the festival's opening night.

Ray Martinez, the chief of security for Ultra, said at news conference Saturday that the Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects Virginia Key with Miami's mainland, will have one dedicated lane for bus service starting at 9:30 p.m. On Ultra's first night, buses were restricted to two lanes and started at 1 a.m.  The three-day festival ends Sunday.

"We recognize we have to make adjustments and improve," Martinez said.

Ultra said in a statement on Twitter that the problems leaving the festival were unacceptable.

"We look forward to offering you a significantly improved transportation experience today and throughout the weekend, and we appreciate the opportunity to earn back your confidence and trust," the statement read.

Ultra also announced Saturday that organizers would extend activities -- including "secret performances" and art installations -- beyond 2 a.m. in an attempt to avoid all concertgoers leaving at the same time.

It took frustrated festivalgoers hours to leave the island, with some not returning to their hotels until around 4 a.m. They called leaving the festival "nightmarish" and "sh-t show."

Ray Martinez, Ultra's chief of security, addresses reporters Saturday.
Ray Martinez, Ultra's chief of security, addresses reporters Saturday.

This year, the annual electronic music festival moved from downtown Miami to Virginia Key over the objections of local residents, who worried about traffic problems with thousands of people all leaving the barrier island around the same time. The festival typically draws more than 150,000 people each year.

In response, the city barred ride-sharing companies such Uber and Lyft from picking up people leaving the festival in an effort to manage traffic. Instead, festivalgoers were instructed to use shuttle buses to return to the mainland.

However, when the festival ended early Saturday, the number of people leaving far exceeded the capacity of the buses. People decided to walk about 3 miles across the Rickenbacker Causeway, stopping traffic along the bridge.

Uber released a statement on Saturday explaining the traffic rules to concertgoers -- many of whom were unaware that ride-sharing companies were not able to pick them up.

"Having thousands of concert attendees trying to find their Uber in congested, narrow, and low-visibility areas off the Rickenbacker Causeway poses a significant safety risk, which is why we worked with law enforcement and aligned on restricting pickups on Virginia Key," said Javier Correoso, a spokesman for Uber. "We continue to work with event organizers to complement the festival's transportation operation."

Correoso said the rules barring ride-sharing pickups remain in effect Saturday and Sunday, contrary to reports on social media.

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr. called the transportation breakdown inexcusable and "a negative stain on our entire community."

"Miami and organizers of Ultra Music Festival must implement a transportation plan that will safely direct pedestrians, reduce heavy traffic off of Virginia Key and prevent risks that could hinder the safety and well-being of festival goers," said Bovo, who is the chairman of the transportation and finance committee for Miami-Dade County.

Kiara Delva, a spokeswoman for the Miami Police Department, said the city has developed a new traffic plan for remaining days of Ultra, which should avoid a repeat of the opening night chaos.

"There are enough buses and methods of transportation to get everyone off of the island safely. We’re asking everyone to exercise patience during this time," Delva said.