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Is the Port of Miami Tunnel Our Big Dig or Our Tunnel to Nowhere?

A recent article in the Miami New Times compares the Port of Miami Tunnel project to the Big Dig in Boston.  For those of you that are not familiar with the Big Dig, it was the most expensive highway project in the U.S.  In 1985 the cost of the project was estimated to be $4 billion; the Big Dig project ended up costing $22 billion when it was finally completed in 2005. The Port of Miami Tunnel project is estimated to cost $1 billion dollars.  It quietly broke ground last week and is expected to be completed by 2014.

These two projects differ greatly.  The most recent issue of Next American City covered the positive impacts of the Big Dig and how this huge infrastructure project had a positive impact on Boston and transformed the city by reconnecting areas which were previously bisected by elevated trains and highways. Peter Vanderwarker, author of The Big Dig: Reshaping an American City had this to say about the Big Dig:

You’ve liberated 100 acres of land in the middle of one of the most historic cities in the United States. You’ve removed cars and pollution from to surface.”

Boston now is a different city.

The old road was noisy, dirty smelly and ugly. [Its removal} has transformed neighborhoods.  In the North End, businesses are flourishing and because of improved access, South Boston is now a very attractive place-sort of like Brooklyn of Boston.”

As is the case here in Miami, many Bostonians were skeptical if the Big Dig was worth the large investment. Today many of the skeptics in Boston may now agree that the Big Dig has made Boston a better city.

I am admittedly skeptical of the Miami Port Tunnel project and the only thing that I believe the Big Dig and the Port of Miami Tunnel project will share in common is cost overruns.  So I think it is unfair to compare the two; the scope of each project is very different. The Big Dig transformed Boston into a more livable city. This massive project reclaimed once dilapidated areas and created 27 acres of parkland. The Miami Port Tunnel on the other hand is just that; a tunnel.

I don’t believe the Miami Port Tunnel will have the same transformative effect on downtown as many in Miami claim. Yeah, we will remove a few trucks from downtown, but what else will this billion dollar project deliver? Quicker access to the port for trucks? Removal of trucks from downtown? We can remove the trucks from downtown by creating an inland port that could be connected by the existing rail line for a fraction of the price.

Is the investment really worth it?

According to the Department of Transportation, in 1992 32,000 vehicles entered the port every day. Today, that number has declined to 19,000, and only 16 percent of that traffic is trucks. Apparently the Port of Miami is losing business to Port Everglades which happens to be much larger and access to Port Everglades is much easier for truckers according to the Miami New Times.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe the Port of Miami can handle post-panamex ships either. I believe Port Everglades may already have this capability, or will in the near future. In order for the Port of Miami to handle post-panamex ships the port would need to be dredged in order to accommodate the new larger ships which are coming online.

For the most part, it sounds like Port Everglades already holds a competitive advantage over the Port of Miami; a tunnel will not help close the gap. The Port of Miami will never handle the capacity of cargo that Port Everglades can, nor should it strive to.

Much like Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, we here in Miami have a billion dollar Tunnel to Nowhere.

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  1. Sonia Succar says:

    From what I understand the project is being financed through concessions, private banks and the FDOT. Is the City of Miami putting any money into this? If they aren’t, why not take advantage of the funds to help improve our infrastructure, alleviate the traffic, and make the Port more competitive? I think the project will also help spur additional growth in the surrounding downtown area, as is the case of the MIC, where the surrounding property values are increasing as a result of an efficient transportation center + corridor, along with acting as a connector to our existing transit system. Can an improved port do the same, where goods, rather than people move more efficiently? The larger question is, why not take advantage of federal funds that would otherwise be allocated to another city?

  2. Oscar says:

    I think the city had to pony up $50 million but the county is on the hook for almost $400 million. While truck traffic leading to the port has definitely held that immediate area back, whether or not the tunnel can completely solve this problem remains to be seen. I am glad that we are at least investing in our urban infrastructure again and I hope that, after the mega tunnel and Intermodal Center are completed, we’ll remain committed and begin investing in mass transit and other improvements. Transportation infrastructure is one area our city is sorely lacking in.

  3. Felipe Azenha says:

    Hi Oscar,

    Your numbers are pretty accurate.

    I’m all for better infrastructure too, but simply throwing money at the problem will not solve it. The port produces 176,000 jobs, most of these people arrive to the Port by motor vehicle and will continue to do so with a tunnel. I would have preferred to see an inland port and a Metrorail extension from the airport to the port. The port tunnel has been in the planning stages for the past 20 years. The Port of Miami has become a much smaller player in the last decade, as larger more competitive ports have come online. I don’t believe the investment in the tunnel will make the Port of Miami more competitive as some hope.

  4. Porter says:

    I’m pretty sure it was the Omni CRA that had put the $50million in, that was the cities share.

  5. Anon says:

    A rail link from the port to points west and north, maybe an inland port, can’t happen fast enough!

  6. Benji Power says:

    Hey team,

    So, some important points of clarification. Port of Miami is actually one of only 3 ports in the nation that received federal go-ahead to do Post-Panamex dredging. Port Everglades (Ft. Lauderdale) is not one of these ports. So in about 10 years, Port of Miami will be only one of 3 ports deep enough to handle the larger ships going through the newly expanded Panama Canal.

    Per the return on investment of the cost of the tunnel, it’s tough for me to decide whether the cost is worth the returns. I have no doubt in arguing that the trucks that are traveling through downtown are having a huge negative on downtown Miami, and most of these will be removed through the creation of the tunnel, making for a much better pedestrian and bicycle environment.

  7. Felipe Azenha says:

    Thanks for the clarification on the post panamex ships Benji. I tried to find info on post panamex ships for both ports (miami and Everglades) but couldn’t find any info.
    I agree that removing trucks from downtown will make it better for pedestrians and cyclists. But I question whether building a tunnel is the best solution. By building a tunnel we only further perpetuate our reliance on trucking and fossil fuels to move cargo in the US. An inland port could easily connect to our existing rail infrastructure. This option would also remove trucks from downtown.

  8. TransitDave says:

    Leave it to NEW TIMES to print a sky is falling article….But I can’t complain, they keep an eye on many other examples of government waste and curruption…Lets hope the Miami Tunnel doesn’t turn out to be one of them…But seriously, access to the port, and the hours it can sometimes take to get in and out of the port during peak traffic times, is why the tunnel project moved forward, after years of examining every other possible alternative……It’s my hope that the project will be finished on time, and under budget, and also prove that we can have a successful bored tunnel in Miami (and hopefully pave the way for a revival of the east-west subway).The panamax capacity is a huge plus for the continued growth of the Port, and bodes well for it’s future. Lets hope that the return on this obscenely high investment is woth the time, trouble and $$$, but lets at least wait until there are cost over-runs before complaining about them…..

  9. M says:

    I think Miami’s version of a “Big Dig” would be to extend the Port of Miami Tunnel west and drop I-395 underground. Think about what that would do to connect neighborhoods, create parkland, and promote pedestrian activity.

    Also, TransitDave, what is this east-west subway you are referring to?

  10. Felipe Azenha says:

    Agreed TransitDave. Panamex capability is a game changer and will give the port of Miami a competetive advantage over port Everglades.

  11. Felipe Azenha says:

    The Miami Big Dig infrastructure project that you are proposing would transform downtown and remove a major barrier (395) that divides dowtown. I like the idea. Keep them coming.

  12. Anonymous says:

    It’s PanaMAX not panamex

  13. Alex Slatko says:

    What the Port of Miami Tunnel will do is set the way for the future. I read the article in the New Times, and for the most part, the facts are dead wrong. I suppose its too much to ask for them to check the facts before they write their story. The Port of Miami IS the number 1 cargo port in Florida, not Port Everglades. And, in 2014, with the dredging of the channel, the port will be one of only three other ports on the eastern seaboard able to accommodate the world largest container ships. I cant explain to you how much this will mean to us. I work in the cargo industry and I can tell you from experience that things get very busy very fast. The Tunnel is a necessity in order to ensure that the commercial future of Miami is secured. Many people look at the here and now and do not consider the future of trade in South Florida. The tunnel will allow us to develop as a community and in my opinion, represents the forward thinking nature that many other cities should emulate. And as for traffic….have you been to downtown lately? every other car is a tractor trailer. Also, downtown is expanding, and many more people are going to be working and LIVING in downtown. Without these trucks, alot of peoples lives are going to get easier.

  14. Felipe Azenha says:

    Thanks for your comments Alex. I did a little fact checking and it does appear that Port Evergaldes is in fact the #2 port in Florida in terms of total tons traded. Miami is# #3 and Tampa is #1.
    Port Trade is undeniably a major economic engine for Miami. I agree that the truck traffic is a problem in downtown Miami, but an inland port rather then a tunnel could alleviate the congestion downtown. The port of long beach is the #4 largest port in the US and they have an inland port. I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same thing here in Miami. Post panamax capabilities is huge and should help the port of

  15. Oscar says:

    Can somebody please expand on the idea of east-west subway? It’s been mentioned a few times on this website but whenever anyone asks about it, like M did, no one really responds. I would like to know more.

    I had recently done some research and found that the conception that building a subway in Miami would be impossible because of the Biscayne Aquifer to be completely false. At its shallowest, the aquifer is still deep enough for us to safely build subway above it. When you consider the fact that purchasing property and overcoming resident who feel Metrorail is an eyesore have been two major roadblocks for Metrorail expansion, building subway rail under our major roads may be an easier route (pun intended). The cost for a subway would only be marginally higher than expanding Metrorail if we use a cut-and-cover method.

    So what’s the deal with this east-west subway?

  16. Gabrielle says:

    I keep wondering what drives this project: and yesterday I got a clue: It is the dredge. So when did we get over our environmental concerns regarding the sludge and it’s removal and disposal?

    Also, I continue to mention that Port Panama City, Florida hopes to be the Panama to Panama connection, handling more container traffic through an expanded port and linked intermodal cargo facility with rail and the international airport. Where does that leave us?

    Here is a study for the Panama Canal Project that will open in 2014:

    I oppose this Tunnel for traffic that just is not there. I really get angry when FenDot takes away the infrastructure for our BayLink with no alternative for better public transit. When will municipal mobility become a priority for our states Department of Transportation? I can get to Orlando pretty well on Florida’s Turnpike, they want to get me to the moon by increasing the use of the spaceport, yet all I want is to be able to get around town with out my car.

  17. Mike Moskos says:

    I was at the 2060 Florida Transportation Plan public meeting Wednesday and when we broke into 3 focus groups, I happened to be sitting next to a woman from the Port of Miami and next to her, another woman from FEC Railroad. The format didn’t allow anyone to speak much, but I got the following impressions from them (note: they are impressions, not specific details)
    -dredging is coming to the Port to allow it to handle bigger ships
    -rail is coming the Port. At least in the beginning, cargo will be shuffled from the Port to the rail years in Hialeah/around the airport.

    I think both the Port and FEC see the writing on the wall in terms of where fuel prices are headed and they know that rail and sea are the two most economical ways to move things (and people around). A side note: don’t be fooled by how low fuel is now: we can expect wide fluctuations, with a continual upward trend. Basically, high fuel prices depress the economy, then the economy heats up again due to low fuel prices (what’s happening now), then increased fuel use raises prices again and the cycle keeps repeating.

    Personally, I think the rail should have prioritized 1000% over the tunnel, but there are probably technical (and political) reasons why it wasn’t. Unfortunately, the meeting format didn’t allow for me to speak extensively with either woman-I would have loved to.

  18. Felipe Azenha says:

    Glad to hear rail is coming to the port. The port needs to be multimodal, with an emphasis on rail. As the tunnel project stands right now, I don’t like it. Tony is dead-on; by building the tunnel entrance on Watson Island we simply shift the traffic and congestion problem to 395, further exacerbating the decline of the area directly surrounding I-395 by raising it even higher. The Super highway is a terrible idea.

    A better solution would be to tunnel I-395 with the tunnel extension to the port. By tunneling the I-395 barrier that separates the Omni/Performing Arts district from downtown, the entire area would be revitalized, much like Boston’s Big Dig, but hopefully without the insane cost overruns.

    We need the port; it is an economic engine for Miami. But we need to be smart about connecting it to the mainland and to the airport.

  19. cyclist says:

    I hope after the tunnel is done we can remove one lane of traffic on the Port Bridge from downtown and dedicate it to cyclist and pedestrians. I bet the bridge expansion from Museum Park/Omni to Watson Island don’t have pedestrian or cyclist dedicated spaces. I know felipe had a great example on I-95 in DC. How can we get tourist to rent bikes and get to know our cities if they can not get to the major attractions.

  20. Jeff says:

    Oscar, to answer your question, the East-West subway that I think others were referring to was the original East-West Metrorail expansion. The West portion would remain above ground, but the segment that was to run East of the the MIC (going through Little Havana and terminating at the Port of Miami) was to run underground. Feel free to correct me if I’m misinformed. As for the Port of Miami Tunnel, I would have liked to have seen it start from the mainland (as mentioned) to help revitalize that area.

  21. Steve says:

    Truck traffic from the port certainly adds to the traffic downtown. As mentioned, an inland port would solve that problem, as they have in Long Beach. So would restricting port truck traffic to off-peak hours. I can tell you that there is not a lot of traffic in the port area after10 or 11 PM. The streets are free for the taking after that, all night long.

    There is no reason that a truck needs to leave the port at 5 PM on a weekday.

  22. Mike Moskos says:

    re: Steve’s comment: I wonder if this what the old railroad yard at Biscayne and 36th Street (now Midtown Miami) was used for: an inland port. It is directly connected to the port.

    Also, the Port and gov are spending $43 million to re-start the rail line going in and out of the Port to move cargo to the large rail yards in Hialeah.

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