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Port of Miami Tunnel Project Could Be South Florida's Big Dig

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Trucker Jose Martinez heads to the Port of Miami every day on his 40-foot white Freightliner. By the time he gets downtown, traffic is a breeze. "It's like going from the bed to the kitchen," he says.

Twenty years ago that wouldn't have been possible. The port was connected to the mainland only by a two lane draw-bridge that backed up traffic all the way to Biscayne Boulevard.

It was then that government officials first hatched the idea to speed up downtown traffic by way of a tunnel. That idea was eventually shelved in place of the cheaper, six-lane bridge that remains in place today.

But the tunnel notion didn't die, and last week the Florida Department of Transportation quietly broke ground at Watson Island on a $1 billion dollar tunnel that would "eliminate" congestion on downtown city streets. The cost to local tax payers? As much as $450 million from the city and the county. "The port has continued to expand, and as the cargo increases, the number of trucks to move cargo also increases," said Debora Rivera, Miami-Dade department director.

Only, as this week's metro story finds out, the Port of Miami has actually been shrinking over the past decade, not expanding. In 1992, 32,000 vehicles entered the port every day, according to the Department of Transportation. Today, that numbered has declined to 19,000. And the kicker is only 16 percent of that traffic is trucks.

The port itself has lost business to the booming Port Everglades in Broward, which overtook Miami as the largest cargo port in the state in 2007. Miami, which used to be the cruise capital of the country, may no longer be. Everglades is now home to the two largest cruises in the world, and in April signed a 15-year-year contract with Carnival. 

When asked for comment, the owners of some of the oldest trucking companies at the port scratched their heads about the tunnel project. They say there's only traffic congestion at the port, not downtown.

"All the truckers prefer Everglades even though it's more miles because they can make three, four runs in a day," says Alejandro Arrieta, a professorial Chilean who's owned his company, Delta Line Interntional, for a decade. "In Miami, you're lucky if you get in two. That's not going to change with the tunnel." Martinez, who used to be a cab driver in Cuba, says truckers regularly call the port "the house of troubles." It takes him three to four hours just to get in and out with a container.

Business owners downtown also described the project as a tunnel to no where. "When you build a highway, that pays for itself," says Ray Jurist, who owns Papa's Fries at Bayside Marketplace. "But no one's going to use this."

The tunnel is part of a handful of expensive road projects happening in South Florida right now, such as the $1.8 billion I-595 reconstruction in Broward and the $1.7 billion Miami Intermodal Center near the airport. Miami's tunnel will be the priciest in the state's history.

Heavy construction will begin next year when a $45 million machine as big as a cruise will be assembled at the island to excavate underground. Rivera says the tunnel will be completed by 2014. For some perspective consider this: the six-lane tunnel that connects the port with the mainland today was going to cost $29 million. By the time it was completed in 1991, its price had ballooned to $52 million.

Commissioner Joe Martinez, one of four county commissioners who voted against the tunnel back in 2007, warns it could become our Big Dig, the $4 billion Boston tunneling project that eventually cost $22 billion in budget overruns and delays. "It's a matter of common sense," he says. "There are better ways to spend that money."

In other words, merry driving on MacArthur Causeway for the next four years. If you can think of other needless, expensive public works projects, tell us in the comments.

[erik.maza@miaminewtimes.com | on twitter]

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