Port of Miami tunnel is a waste of taxpayer money

If you believe downtown developers and government officials, the street next to Monica Winter's kiosk at Bayside Marketplace should be a heaving mass of smoke-belching big rigs clogging Biscayne Boulevard as they head to the Port of Miami.

But on this early spring morning, the streets are deserted as the feisty Colombian native feeds Kirkland almonds to the squirrels that come down to her counter. "There are more homeless people than trucks," Winter says.

Tell that to city and county officials who on May 24 quietly broke ground on a $1 billion project that will siphon all of those nonexistent big rigs to a tunnel 120 feet underground. Even if it stays on budget, the project will be the largest, most expensive tunnel in Florida history and the costliest road project after the I-595 reconstruction in Broward.

County Commissioner Joe Martinez, who voted against the tunnel before it was approved in 2007, warns it could become Miami's Big Dig, the $4 billion Boston tunneling project that ended up costing $22 billion in overruns and delays.

"I still believe it will not live up to its promises and become more of a headache," Martinez says. "I'm still petrified of the Big Dig. It's a matter of common sense. There are better ways to spend that money."

Martinez is not alone. Environmental activists, three other county commissioners, business owners, and some of the oldest port trucking companies all scoff at the project. They note it comes at a time when the city and county can't afford to pitch in $450 million, and the port is losing cargo, traffic, and cruise business to booming Port Everglades in Broward.

In fact, traffic at Miami's century-old port has dropped from 32,000 cars and trucks a day in 1991, to 19,000 today, according to transportation officials. And by the port's estimate, trucks make up only 15 percent of that traffic. The problem, truckers argue, is not on downtown's streets but at the port itself, where lazy county employees and unionized laborers slow entrance to the once-bustling docks.

"All the truckers prefer Everglades even though it's more miles because they can make three, four runs in a day. In Miami, you're lucky if you get in two," says Alejandro Arrieta, who has owned Delta Lines International since 1997. "All the major trucking companies have left it because of that. That's not going to change with the tunnel."

Part of a boom in infrastructure projects across the nation spurred by the Obama administration's $789 billion stimulus package, the tunnel will eliminate the "undesirable" mixture of passenger traffic and trucks on city streets, transportation officials contend.

Speaking from the Florida Department of Transportation's drab Miami-Dade headquarters in Doral, director Debora Rivera predicts the number of trucks visiting Miami's port will jump from the current 3,000 a day to 4,800 a day in 2014, when the tunnel is scheduled to be completed.

"The port has continued to expand, and as the cargo increases, the number of trucks to move that cargo also increases," Rivera says. "Trucks and cars are competing for space on city streets. The need for a tunnel doesn't disappear over time."

The idea of a tunnel goes back to the era of Crockett and Tubbs, when the port was the nation's largest cruise port and fifth largest cargo port, with shipments of nearly 3 million tons a year. Plans to replace the two-lane drawbridge with a costly tunnel were scrapped, and a $29 million, six-lane bridge that nearly doubled in cost to $52 million was completed in 1991. While the bridge alleviated traffic congestion downtown, it did little to speed up access to the terminals, especially after 9/11.

"It's a different port than it was ten years ago," says Marco Belusic, owner of Caribbean Trucking, who's been hauling port cargo since 1992. "It's Homeland Security; it's the inspections; it's a lot to put up with. Plus you're going against union labor."

"We all know the Port of Miami is the most inefficient on the East Coast," Arrieta says. "It takes an hour just to get into the terminal. Then they do security checks of the truck, of the chassis, of the cargo, of the drivers. Then my drivers have to wait hours to get forklifts to deliver the cargo."

Jose Martinez drives a white 40-foot Freightliner from Doral every day. From the time he spurts out of I-395 onto NE Second Avenue, he cruises to the port "like going from the bed to the kitchen." It's when he gets there that he has to wait behind dozens of idling trucks spewing clouds of exhaust as county employees lazily flag them through security clearance.

While he's waiting, he goofs around on the CB, calls his wife, surfs the web on the laptop installed above the dashboard, and even takes a nap in the unmade bed in his cabin. Martinez says it takes him three to four hours to simply pick up one container. "We call it the house of troubles," Martinez says of the port.

Truckers have been leaving in droves to Port Everglades, a man-made seaport with easy access to the airport and expressway. By 2007, it had overtaken Miami as the largest cargo port in the state. It's already home to the world's two largest cruise ships — Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas — and experts predict that by 2011, it'll be the nation's largest cruise port after signing a 15-year deal with Carnival this past April.

Truckers aren't the only ones complaining the tunnel is a massive, unnecessary mistake. Gigi Gimenez of Sierra Club Miami questions the impact that will be felt next year, when a $45 million machine will bore 120 feet into the ground.

"The project is located within the Biscayne Aquifer," says Gimenez, the group's conservation chair. "Soil removal and dewatering activities could lead to petroleum, arsenic, and lead constituents in ground water."

For the business owners at Bayside, it's a matter of common sense. Winter says the money is better spent elsewhere. "They should clean up the streets instead," she says as she feeds another squirrel. "Or give me a small-business loan."

At Papa's Fries farther inside the mall, owner Ray Jurist, a Romanian who indiscriminately sprinkles his English with heavily accented fucks and goddamns, is pissed he'll be footing the bill.

"When you build a highway, that pays for itself," Jurist says. "But nobody's going to use this." The money, he adds, should be invested in public transportation, in a rail connecting the city to the airport, or better yet, to the beach.

"It's not just the money they'll need, it's the maintenance of the fucking thing," he says.

Jason Estrada, a Flagler jewelry store owner sitting next to Jurist and nursing a beer, butts in: "Get ready, Miami — you're about to get fucked."

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Erik Maza