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Invisible on ballot: money for port tunnel


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The word ''tunnel'' doesn't appear anywhere on the Nov. 2 ballot or the hundreds of pages of legal documents detailing more than 300 projects that Miami-Dade County voters are considering in the Nov. 2 bond-issue referendum.

But buried in the fine print of the support documents for Question 3, amid dozens of community projects and bridges, lies this little nugget: $100 million for ``the planning, design permitting and construction of infrastructure to improve access to the Port of Miami.''

In other words . . . a tunnel.

While it is the most expensive item in Question 3, the $100 million would be a drop in the proverbial dragline bucket for the proposed tunnel linking Watson and Dodge islands.

The tunnel currently being studied by Florida's Turnpike officials would cost upwards of $1 billion in today's dollars even though it might be a decade or two down the road.

While they acknowledge that the $100 million in Question 3 would be used toward financing a tunnel if one is built, officials caution that it is far from a done deal.

``Just because they pass the bond issue doesn't mean that we're going to build it,''said Turnpike project manager Rebecca Bolan.

Proponents say the bond-issue vote creates an opportunity to set aside the funds now to show potential state and federal funding partners that Miami-Dade is serious about improving access to the area's No. 2 economic hub after the airport.

They say that removing trucks from the downtown grid would aid the ongoing Miami renaissance, making the area more attractive to high-rise condo dwellers, potential Bicentennial Park museum patrons, and opera lovers heading to the new Performing Arts Center.

County Manager George Burgess, who is orchestrating the bond-issue campaign, said the tunnel funds would not be bonded, much less allocated, if the tunnel plans are shelved. But that is apparently the extent of the guarantee to taxpayers that their money won't be reallocated.

''It's like having the note in the drawer saying we are ready to kick in our share if we ever get to that point,'' Burgess said. ``This won't get done without a lot of other partners involved. The $100 million is effectively in the drawer.''

Several business groups are backing the bond issues, and no organized opposition to the question has emerged.

But one Miami-Dade mayoral candidate, former Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, has raised concerns about several of the bond program items -- including the tunnel funds.

''That's a project that's going to be billions of dollars, and there's no money allocated,'' Alvarez said at a recent candidate forum. ``So I don't know why we would be asking the citizens to approve such a thing at this time.''

His opponent, County Commissioner Jimmy Morales, supports the entire program.


''The single greatest threat to that seaport is ingress-egress,'' Morales said. ``It's going to be a disaster, for both the future of the seaport and for downtown, if we don't get those trucks off the downtown streets. The [general-obligation bond] gives us a unique opportunity to set aside the local match for what would be a much larger project.''

A tunnel under Government Cut to link Watson and Dodge islands has been on various drawing boards for more than a decade.

In December 2000, federal highway officials signed off on a proposed alignment and tunneling method. But the project was shelved by the Florida Department of Transportation because of lingering funding questions that are not going to disappear over time.

Conditions have dramatically changed since then. Watson Island is now home to Parrot Jungle Island and a children's museum, and city commissioners recently approved the 53-story Island Gardens hotel and marina project.

At the same time, the port is in the midst of rearranging traffic patterns to further separate cruise-line and cargo operations and security screening areas for a post-9/11 world. High-rise condos are going up, and several more are being planned, along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor. A streetcar could be running in the area by 2008.

Tunnels are still a novelty in the Sunshine State, largely because of high water tables and unpredictable geology. There is only one transportation tunnel in the state. Built in 1961 for a mere $6.6 million, the Henry A. Kinney tunnel allows for free-flowing U.S. 1 traffic under the New River in Fort Lauderdale.

The port tunnel, by comparison, would present much tougher engineering, environmental, logistical and financial challenges, especially with concrete and steel prices careening skyward.

''We're talking about a very large project in a very tight, confined area,'' said Bolan, the Turnpike project manager.

The distance between Dodge and Watson islands is less than 1,200 feet. Government Cut is 40 to 42 feet deep to accommodate freighter and cruise-ship traffic, meaning that a tunnel has to be constructed an additional 40 to 60 feet below the existing channel bottom. The MacArthur Causeway bridge would have to be widened -- there is room for two more lanes between the existing spans -- to accommodate the tunnel portals.


The 2000 study called for a ''bored'' tunnel -- actually two tubes, with two lanes in each -- dug 110 feet below the water surface by a mammoth machine that excavates and removes debris from one end while workers at the other start to form and reinforce the interior walls.

The primary concern with this method is the lack of drilling and digging history in South Florida's unique subterranean geology, including pockets of holes in otherwise heavy layers of limestone.

But the other method, immersing several connecting precast tubes underwater into a cut that would be dredged 85 feet below sea level, raises more environmental concerns.

It also requires more machinery, barges and boats that would ostensibly create traffic problems for ongoing cruise and cargo operations at the port.

''We definitely support the boring option,'' said Port Director Charles Towsley. ``I don't even want to think about the other option.''

Bolan said preliminary financial projections are looking at an array of possibilities to generate money to help pay for the tunnel -- including a toll that would be assessed electronically for every vehicle entering the port via the existing bridge and the tunnel.

What is Plan B if the voters reject Question 3?

''I don't know,'' Towsley said. ``We'll have a very hard time making an argument to go asking the others to participate in a project that will benefit our community if we won't put up a local match.''

Two types of tunnel construction

BORED: Uses a huge machine that simultaneiously drills underneath the channel and sends the debris on conveyors from the front end to the rear. Workers there start to form and reinforce the interior walls. Tunnel builders are pushing this method, but local officials, lacking any history on which to base a decision, are wary of drilling into subterranean limestone.

IMMERSED TUBE: Involves dredging the ship channel, then sinking and joining sections of huge tubes to create the tunnel. Port officials fear that this method would cause major disruptions in the cruise and cargo shipping lanes. Environmentalists fear that it would destroy aquatic plants and wildlife.


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Myself, I'm not real sure about this project. I'll admit that something needs to be done, but this seems to complicate the issue more than solve it. I think it would be a mistake to route traffic to the MacAuthur and the tunnel design is too expensive.

I'd like to see maybe a half grade tunnel go through downtown. Cut down the tracks to just below grade and cover it with a dome. Then use rail to bring the boxes in and out of the port to a holding area somewhere outside of downtown. That'd get rid of the trucks downtown, cut down on noise because of the rail and save space and money.

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