Train tunnel to Port of Miami seen as way to ease congestion, promote downtown development
By Frank Norton
Underground freight trains running from the Port of Miami to 79th Street could keep cargo business rolling while easing traffic congestion downtown.
The idea, hatched years ago by Miami Chief of Community Planning Clark Turner, is gaining new steam as a way to move freight through the port without continuing to snarl traffic. And a tunnel would avoid laying tracks across developable land that plays into the city's vision of a livable, user-friendly downtown.
As envisioned, an underground rail would route trucks to an inter-modal hub at Northeast 79th Street and the existing FEC rail line, where trains would emerge.
"We could essentially kill two birds with one stone," Mr. Turner said. "The underground tunnel would create a rail alternative for the port and clear the way to knock down I-395. Those hulking, ugly structures have no business in any downtown."
The interstate and its support ramps bisect downtown and the Omni area; a division some say is a barrier to attractive growth.
Pushing the rail tunnel are Miami City Commissioner Johnny Winton, Port Director Charles Towsley and Miami-Dade County Assistant Manager Bill Johnson - all of whom have met with Mr. Turner to discuss it.
Commissioner Winton said the rail tunnel is the most dynamic port idea yet because it integrates economic, infrastructure and quality-of-life needs.
"The port," Commissioner Winton said, "is one of our greatest economic assets. This rail would eliminate the ever increasing conflict between shipping and quality of life downtown."
As the train-tunnel idea gains popularity, other potential solutions for the downtown business and port congestion problem remain on the table.
As recently as February, port authorities began studying the possibility of reopening the retired drawbridge that stands just south of the Dodge Island Bridge as an alternative route for passenger cars heading to the port.
Director Charles Towsley could not be reached this week for comment, but a spokesman said authorities are still considering returning the old bridge into use.
And, two years ago a cargo-truck tunnel to run under the bay from Watson Island to the port garnered a plan for a $545 million financial study, but action has been put on the back burner while the Florida Department of Transportation restructures the office in charge of bidding out a feasibility study.
The truck tunnel would steer cargo trucks clear of a particularly congested stretch of Biscayne Boulevard, but would not permit the lowering or demolition of I-395, a concrete barrier that Commissioner Winton and other downtown advocates say literally and aesthetically divides the city and hampers the creation of a livable downtown.
In any case, those plans lack the scope of changes the underground-rail scenario could address and which is why it is winning attention from Commissioner Winton, Assistant County Manager Johnson, Mr. Towsley and other port and downtown stakeholders.
"We'll be doing a lot of exploratory work between now and the end of the year, Mr. Johnson said.
The next step in the train-tunnel discussion will be for Miami, Miami-Dade County and state officials to iron out scope, cost and financing for a feasibility study.
"We're not abandoning the Watson Island Tunnel, but the objective here would be more than just getting the trucks out of the downtown," Mr. Johnson said this week, referring to the train-tunnel plan. "As we become a world-class city we'll need to address quality-of-life issues as well as ensure that the port remains competitive."
The port's 2001 impact on the county was in excess of $8 billion and its combination of cargo and cruise business sustains more than 45,000 jobs, the Beacon Council reported. Miami's is the largest container port in Florida and is ranked among the top 10 in the US.
The port is undergoing a $171 million capital improvement program aimed at improving the flow of cruise and cargo traffic on the port island.
"But how competitive can the port remain when in 30 years, there are 40,000 people living downtown," Mr. Winton said. "The answer may lie underground."