Tunnel to Port of Miami gains priority; costs rising
By Victor Cruz
State and local transportation officials seeking to ease downtown traffic snarls by integrating plans for a $600 million tunnel between Watson Island and the Port of Miami into a comprehensive design for the area are a step closer to making the project a priority.
State-hired consultants, with approval from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, are reviewing the costs and sources of funds for the project for possible construction between 2002 and 2005.
The tunnel is already a part of the county's master plan, but is now slated for construction between 2016 and 2020.
Since August, Federal Department of Transportation planning engineer Jose Abreu, along with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, Florida Turnpike and Port of Miami officials have worked to come up with a feasibility report for tunnel construction. It is just one component of a larger plan to deal with congestion due to truck traffic, mostly heading to and from the port.
Following the presentation of the transportation agency's financial report April 26 to Metropolitan Planning Organization directors, Mr. Abreu said he got the support he was looking for when the group of 13 commissioners and four local mayors did not ask for further studies.
The planning agency, after hearing the report, also decided to include the cities of Miami and Miami Beach and the county's public works department in a search for traffic solutions.
Now the Florida Department of Transportation and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which proposed the project, are free to begin talking to agencies that are possible financing sources for the underground passageway that will serve as a restricted-use, commercial vehicle route.
"Now we can go to our funding sources and ask them not just how many dollars they're willing to commit for this project," Mr. Abreu said. "But we're going to ask for dates attached to those dollar figures."
With these figures in hand, Florida Department of Transportation and expressway authority officials say they hope to attract private companies to the project. Already, several developers have expressed interest, Mr. Abreu said.
The proposed price tag for the tunnel has jumped since August from $400 million to between $535 million and $600 million, depending on whether construction begins in 2002 or 2005.
"It's not that the price has changed, it's that the packaging is now more complete," said Walter Revell, former state transportation department secretary of transportation, one of three consultants hired by state agencies to work on the project.
"Any year you don't build," Mr. Revell said, "costs may go up. Also, you are now accounting for the approaches to the tunnel, too, not just the tunnel."
While there is little new about the financing sources the Florida Department of Transportation and the expressway authority can turn to, the tunnel's impact on international trade as a provider of airport and seaport connections makes for a compelling case for federal funds, Mr. Revell said.
"We've got all other types of real sizzle to go with the normal stake," he said of the tunnel's ability to draw federal dollars.
That sizzle will need to attract 30% of the project's price in federal transportation funds, according to the report. The rest will be paid for - with tolls and subsidies from Florida's Turnpike accounting for 25%, Miami-Dade County port funds amounting to 20%, the Florida Department of Transportation adding 20% and other state funds making up the remaining 5%.
The Florida Department of Transportation and the expressway authority are drafting budgets for the redesign of downtown links from the 836 expressway and I-395. Each of these projects is estimated to cost about $80 million and plans for both need to be coordinated with plans for a tunnel, Mr. Revell said.