Miami-Dade planning organization members see 'vultures' circling for port tunnel funds
By Risa Polansky
The high priority Miami-Dade's Metropolitan Planning Organization board members put on a Port of Miami tunnel hasn't changed — and they want state officials to know it.
The board, responsible for transportation planning here, acted swiftly last week after Florida's transportation head surprised local officials by halting action on the $1 billion-plus project, citing financing issues with the selected contractor.
Planning organization members, who are county commissioners and municipal officials, voted not only to reaffirm their support for the tunnel but also to ask the county's legislative delegation and League of Cities to do the same.
And in taking up the Department of Transportation's $3.15 billion, five-year work plan, the board agreed to give its blessing only so long as the $457 million in state funding for the tunnel remains in the plan.
The state has yet to yank the tunnel money. The only known plan now is to halt the years-long procurement process.
But planning organization board members said they fear the state funds could end up backing another major project in Florida rather than the underwater tunnel, which proponents see as a safety measure and commerce conduit that would relieve traffic at the port and remove rumbling cargo trucks from downtown streets, facilitating economic growth both at the port and in the city's urban core.
"It is too soon at this point to know how the funding may or may not be reallocated," Gus Pego, secretary of the local department of transportation district, told the planning organization board last week.
The state is working to identify other projects in Miami-Dade "for this purpose," he said.
He said that if the state intended to move the money from the tunnel project, the issue would come back before the board.
In an earlier interview, he had said also that "as long as the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization] continues to make this [the tunnel] its highest priority, we will do what we can to keep it funded."
Board member and newly installed Miami-Dade Commission Chair Dennis Moss said at the planning organization meeting that he's heard other Florida localities are already eyeing the money, even asking about it at a state Senate committee meeting.
"It appears that the vultures are circling," Mr. Moss said, skeptical the project is really being pulled for contract reasons. "I'm not sure that what's being relayed to us is what's happening behind the scenes."
North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns speculated the funds are "earmarked for I-4 probably already, or Tampa."
If the tunnel isn't dug, "don't even look for one dime of money that's going to stay here in Miami-Dade County," Mr. Burns warned board members. "It's going north, folks."
Even County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, a tunnel opponent, blasted the state's action and questioned whether the about-face had to do with plans to use the money for other projects.
"This is a slap in the face," she said.
Several planning organization board members lambasted state officials for abruptly shelving the tunnel without consulting their local partners first, fueling suspicion that more than procurement issues are at play.
The state can't just say "I'm going to take my bat and ball and go home — partnerships don't work like that," Mr. Burns said. "I think the people of Dade County are getting hoodwinked."
State officials maintain that Australia's Babcock & Brown, the equity partner in the team selected to dig and operate the tunnel, faced financial issues too severe to merit pursuing a final contract.
The contractor team insists it's found a new, solvent partner: Paris-based Meridiam Infrastructure.
Local officials are pointing to that as a reason to move forward with the tunnel.
Or, County Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said, in competitive bidding, "if one of them [bidders] doesn't work out, you go to the second bidder."
The state instead "trashed" the first without moving to the next, he said.
"If the first entity didn't work why not go to the second? This is a simple procurement issue.... We're playing hide and go seek — now you see it now you don't — with the financing."
Mr. Pego said the team that ranked second was unaffordable. He noted also that procurement began two years ago.
Still, Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff asked that the first- and second-ranked bidders meet with the planning organization board.
Members agreed, calling also for the governor and state transportation secretary to come before the board.
Warned Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower, "I think that they'll come and we're going to see the same rhetoric again."
She pressed to involve state legislators.
"Where are our people that are representing us up in Tallahassee?" she asked. "They should be busy representing us."
Miami-Dade delegation head Rep. Juan C. Zapata did not return calls for comment.
County commissioner Seijas pointed out also that the county and municipalities have lobbyists on retainer to press local needs in Tallahassee.
Localities must make the tunnel money a priority, she said, and "hammer it and hammer it and hammer it and hammer it."