Tunnel's failure should become holiday gift to port, public
Finally, a financial upheaval becomes a Christmas gift.
The inability of would-be contractors to bore a $1 billion Port of Miami tunnel will save taxpayers hundreds of millions. Far better, needs that spurred the tunnel can be met anyway, at little cost.
A tunnel linking Watson Island with the Port of Miami on Dodge Island was to steer away from downtown trucks that clog daytime traffic and impede port access.
The Florida Department of Transportation canceled the project Friday because the foreign consortium that was to dig and operate a tunnel couldn't get funding as one player neared collapse.
Left behind was a blank slate on which administrators can draw a new game plan, less simplistic but far wiser.
Its four steps would clear downtown traffic, speed access to the seaport, permit future port expansions and let the state, county and city make far better use of almost $1 billion.
Combine all and a financial upheaval becomes a gift indeed.
But enjoying its benefits requires officials who have long seen a tunnel as the seaport's only future to take other routes. Such government flexibility has been less evident than an edifice complex that lets construction meet every need, both real and imagined.
Still, the port's users — cruise lines and freight carriers that opposed a tunnel all along — now have an added wedge to convince the county that progress can follow more than one path.
In this case, four partial solutions offer clearer ways into and out of the port. Together, they're superior to a tunnel.
One is to build a ramp onto I-95 from Northeast Sixth Street for about $24 million, clear meters off intervening streets and open two more lanes to speed port traffic. Some neighbors don't like that, but they also hate port traffic jams nearby.
A second partial solution is to flow some port container cargo to and from staging areas in the Miami River's industrial area via lighters. That follows an existing highway: a highway of water. As a port itself, the river could add area on its banks to a constricted seaport. River interests have proposed that solution.
A third reliever of port congestion uses another existing link: the port's rail line. A Florida East Coast Railway single-track line now handles 8% of the port's freight in a weekly run. That train carries as much as 100 trucks could.
Studies show that more rail runs could relieve port congestion, and the railroad has proposed a daily train between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when it wouldn't clog traffic as it crosses Biscayne Boulevard beside the Freedom Tower just north of Sixth Street.
About 11% of the port's annual 9 million tons of cargo heads directly north without going through West Miami-Dade warehouse and distribution centers. That cargo could certainly leave by rail.
But nothing prevents also offloading other containers in the railroad's Hialeah intermodal center and moving them around the county by trucks that would never get near the seaport.
Those three steps are part of the puzzle. But the single biggest piece — by far easiest to drop into place — would require no infrastructure or setup time.
The most efficient step is to heavily toll trucks entering the port by daylight so the vast majority would shift to night. After all, the failed tunnel plan tolled every vehicle. That's how the consortium was going to profit.
Why not do the same without a tunnel? And, to ease the sting of changing truckers' schedules, redistribute collected tolls to truckers who enter the port at night. Truckers pay daytime, get paid nighttime. That way, truckers as a whole wouldn't be out of pocket.
That would require night shifts of federal inspectors and stevedores, thus creating jobs — one reason governments are pushing like crazy to build, build, build in the face of recession. But these jobs would be permanent, not temporary construction work.
Because the aim of daytime-only tolling is not profit but to shift trucks, the port wouldn't charge cars, taxis or busloads of cruise passengers as a tunnel would have, a feature that set port users against it. Cruise passengers and those on port business would enter and leave far faster and they wouldn't pay to do so. Port users should love it.
Night work is already on the horizon. Even those most in favor of a tunnel foresee a 24-hour seaport. Daytime-only truck tolling would speed the change.
Port growth assumptions used to promote a tunnel, however, are questionable. From 26,000 vehicles that include 3,600 heavy trucks and 400 buses a day now, projected are 67,000 vehicles, 9,200 trucks and 1,076 buses by 2033.
But that implies nearly triple today's cruise passengers and 2½ times the cargo. Since the port is out of land and can't squeeze in more or larger cruise ships, how could such growth be possible even if demand were there?
That's reminiscent of vast demand projected at Miami International Airport that triggered an expansion that's now billions over budget and still unfinished. Unfortunately, air traffic wobbled and administrators have talked of shutting down perfectly good terminals because they're no longer needed.
Could such overestimates be in play at the seaport too?
That's one reason burying a port tunnel is so cheering. It doesn't bind us to a 35-year plan that might founder. Solutions such as lighters, added rail runs and tolling incentives could be altered on a dime, not in decades. And big money isn't at risk.
Meanwhile, government will find better uses for tunnel funds.
The state, which needs massive cuts to balance its budget, has a simple solution: pocket the cash.
The county, which has just sent Santa Obama a goodies wish list for $1.5 billion to jumpstart major projects, would have $402.5 million in hand to get going now.
And the City of Miami never had its $88 million share. It was going to put in a bit every year for 30 or 35 years to meet its commitment. Now one less obligation hangs over taxpayers' heads.
Taxpayers could get another Christmas gift from the tunnel's doom. The Watson Island tunnel entry could now become parkland. And Mayor Manny Diaz, who had made a tunnel the largest piece of a mega-plan of public works, could leave an island park in his legacy as Miami's Green Mayor.
All of this is so sensible that you wonder why a tunnel was on the boards in the first place.
Government officials now have two choices.
One is do nothing and wait for a mythical tunnel deal to come down the road.
Unfortunately, with a global slump, that's too far away to relieve downtown traffic or help seaport users. A potential park would lie fallow. State funds would disappear, so no tunnel deal would work.
The other option is to turn a financial upheaval into a golden opportunity to do now what's needed to relieve traffic, seize opportunities and do positive things in a very negative environment — and at little cost.