Miami officials question Florida's decision to halt port tunnel project
By Risa Polansky
Local officials aren't buying state transportation officials' explanation for putting the brakes on a long-planned tunnel to the Port of Miami.
The state intends to table the $1 billion-plus infrastructure project because of equity issues with the selected contractor, the department of transportation head told Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez late last week.
But the contractor team "disputes these allegations — and we need answers," Mr. Alvarez said at a press conference Tuesday.
The original equity partner in the project — Australian investment and asset manager Babcock & Brown — is mired in financial troubles, he and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz acknowledged.
But another equity investment fund, Paris-based Meridiam Infrastructure is flush with capital and has committed to fully replace the Australian firm's equity commitment, they said, meaning the project is still doable.
The contractor team confirmed it in a Dec. 14 letter to department of transportation officials.
"The equity funding is in place," the letter says, asserting that the state's move to kill the procurement process "is based upon incorrect facts, devalues the investment that all parties have made in those long negotiations and, most importantly, represents arbitrary agency action."
The tunnel is designed to divert what some call bothersome and unsafe truck traffic away from downtown's main artery and improve access to the port through underwater tubes that would connect the port and Watson Island.
Critics call the tunnel an expensive project that wouldn't solve the problem. However, no opponents spoke out at the press conference.
When asked why the state would bury what local officials are calling a still-viable project, both mayors said the only people who could answer that are state officials.
Gus Pego, local district secretary for the Department of Transportation, said in an earlier interview that state money is still slated for the project — it's the procurement process that's stopped short.
Mayor Diaz said at the press conference that he asked why officials couldn't work with former bidders for the project if the selected contractor isn't working out, but that he didn't get a good answer.
He asked also why the state couldn't open a new procurement process and said he was told "the market won't sustain it."
But the only way to find that out is to open the door and see who walks through, Mr. Diaz said.
Even in this economy, another equity partner is willing to step up, Mr. Alvarez stressed.
Local business leaders backed elected officers.
"There is no logical reason why the state has made the decision it's made," said Carlos Fernandez-Guzman, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, in an interview at Tuesday's press conference. "[The port tunnel is] a no-brainer. It's very difficult to accept the reasons stated."
Frank Nero, president and chief executive officer of the Beacon Council, called the state's announcement to yank the project "a very precipitous move — I don't know if all the alternatives were explored."
Local leaders must continue to push for a resolution, he said.
"Just to sort of cancel this without really having consulted with our elected leadership, business leadership, is unfortunate."
Elected officials emphasized the need for the project.
"We need to keep our port competitive," Mr. Alvarez said, predicting cargo truckers will divert to other ports in the state if they don't have easy access to Miami's.
"It's an investment in our city's future and our region's future," Mr. Diaz agreed.
Asked about tunnel alternatives, officials stressed that engineers have studied different options for decades.
In using the railroad rather than building a tunnel, "you'd be blocking every intersection in downtown Miami," said county aviation Director José Abreu, an engineer and former district and state secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation.
And a bridge would have to be gargantuan, he said.
"It just creates a roller-coaster effect, which is simply not feasible."
Mr. Diaz pooh-poohed "Johnny-come-lately, living-room engineers" who say they believe there are better options than a tunnel, reiterating that professionals have studied and re-studied alternatives since the late 1970s.
Agreed Port Director Bill Johnson in an interview after the press conference: "everyone has an alternative, everyone has a solution." But "this is deemed to have been, and continues to be, the best option."
He says he is open to other ideas, such as using the Miami River to transport cargo on smaller vessels for offloading upriver or opening the port to trucks at night.
"I've never discounted barging," he said, but river players have yet to present him with a "concrete plan," and players would have to overcome issues such as security and the cost of double-handling cargo.
Mr. Johnson said he "love[s] the idea" of opening the port at off-peak hours and offering cheaper toll rates then, but "there are reasons why it works, reasons why it doesn't work."
The warehousing operators would have to get on board and agree to accept cargo at night, and customs issues would need to be ironed out, he said.
But "I think that [opening at night] is part of our solution," he said. "We need that — but we also need the tunnel."
Officials vowed to give their all to make it happen.
"We can't give up," Miami Mayor Diaz said. "There's been too much time, too much effort and too much money spent on this vision."