Port tunnel may prove vital after port channel dredged to 50 feet
By Risa Polansky
Engineering is about to begin to deepen the channel to the Port of Miami to accommodate bigger ships, Miami-Dade's port director says — but underwater tunnels to the port are vital to handle the added cargo traffic, he insists.
"We're looking to be able to double the amount of cargo activity at the Port of Miami" with the planned 50-foot channel, Director Bill Johnson said.
The increased traffic will mean "billions and billions of additional wealth to our economy," he said, but "I can't do it without a tunnel."
He later clarified that the channel will be dredged with or without a tunnel but stressed the need for the underwater tubes to provide better access to the port and relieve traffic on downtown streets.
Extending the port's hours of operation, increasing rail use and experimenting with barging on the river are all viable options that the port may eventually put into practice, but they're not tunnel alternatives, Mr. Johnson said.
The long-planned, $1 billion-plus pair of tunnels that would link the port with Watson Island and divert rumbling trucks from downtown Miami has been on and off life support.
Its fate is still unclear as Florida Department of Transportation and local officials continue a tug-of-war that began in December when the state attempted to shelve the project, citing equity issues with the selected contractor.
Now, state officials want to re-bid the project, which could cause years of delay.
Local leaders are pushing to continue negotiating with the chosen concessionaire in an attempt to get the tunnels dug on time — by 2013 or 2014.
Top Miami-Dade officials flew to Tallahassee Monday to make the county's case.
Discussions are ongoing.
Plans to deepen the port channel to 50 feet are progressing with less drama, though funding is still a question mark.
"The dredging is on course; it's on schedule," Mr. Johnson said.
The project is entering the two-year engineering and design phase, and Congress has already appropriated about $478,000 of the anticipated $2.9 million federal share of the design and engineering, he said.
Mr. Johnson said he's been in Washington twice in recent weeks to meet with elected leaders about the $2.5 million balance needed.
"I feel very comfortable we're going to nail that money down," he said, noting that the head of the US Army Corps of Engineers has called the project one of "national significance."
Of the total $160 million-plus construction project, Congress has pledged to fund 40.5%.
Other Florida ports are gunning for federal approval to dredge to 50 feet — but Miami-Dade has an advantage over ports such as Everglades, Tampa and Jacksonville in that Congress has already authorized the local dredging while competitors are still seeking approval.
The plan is to have the dredged channel operational by 2014, the year an expansion project at the Panama Canal is expected to wrap up — and allow larger ships to make their way here.
The port tunnel project is also meant to coincide.
"We are going to do it with or without a tunnel," Mr. Johnson said. But "it's less advantageous to the businesses and to the residents and to the community if we continue to have cruise traffic, cargo traffic going through the downtown streets. We need to have improved access."
That's by today's standards. The added traffic expected to come once dredging is complete only increases the need, he said.
"The real need is 2015, 2016 and beyond," Mr. Johnson said, though "we need a tunnel for the 26,000 vehicles on average that we have today."
A Miami-Dade Freight Plan commissioned by the cargo industry players on the Freight Transportation Advisory Committee of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization says the need is not only for a tunnel.
The plan, dated March 2009, suggests also longer shipping/freight industry hours of operation and a short sea shipping pilot project "to evaluate if containers could be transported effectively from the POM [Port of Miami] to the Port of Miami River using shallow draft vessels to relieve congestion at the POM and reduce truck traffic."
Mr. Johnson agreed, stressing that when it comes to the tunnel and other access projects, "it's not one or the other."
The port should one day run longer hours, officials are forming plans for increasing rail use and the door is open to work with river players on barging, he said.
"I'm in support of all of those things."
He stressed his support for the ideas and referenced ongoing discussions but did not cite any immediate plans to put them in place.
Port business initiatives manager Kevin Lynskey in an interview last week said officials have mobilized to devise a plan for optimizing railways.
Mr. Johnson said he continues to shop the idea to potential port players as far away as Asia.
Other improved access measures have been on his radar since day one, he said.
In August 2006, shortly after beginning as port director, Mr. Johnson said he flew in the consultant who conceived Southern California's PierPASS, a not-for-profit created by marine terminal operators to reduce congestion at area ports.
In includes an off-peak hours program that offers incentive for cargo owners to move freight at night and on weekends.
"Several people in the industry booed at the idea," he said. "It is inevitable. PierPASS will become part of our business model at some point, clearly even with the tunnel, even with improved port access."
He did not say when.
Also during his first year on the job, Mr. Johnson said he held meetings with river players and port tenants to talk barging.
"I can't force people to do barging. I can't make it work on the river," he said. "But I am open enough, I am aggressive enough to provide opportunity for those people to talk. Those opportunities have been going on since day one."