Today's $50 million question: Will city pay tunnel share?
By Risa Polansky
The fate of Miami-Dade County's pet port tunnel project may rest in the hands of City of Miami commissioners, whose feet are being held to the fire as the cutoff date for tunnel funding looms.
The county, state and city have until Sept. 30 to secure full funding for the $1 billion-plus project before its private concessionaire may choose to raise the project's price — which could mean the end of the long-planned tunnel, said Johnny Martinez, district six secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation.
County officials voted in July to contribute $402.5 million to the project, and the state is set to lay down $457 million.
Miami administrators have committed the city to a $50 million contribution along with $5 million in right-of-way on Watson Island, where the tunnel is to be dug.
But commissioners have yet to agree to the deal.
In a foreboding move last month, they virtually denied redevelopment funds in a three-to-two vote as a community redevelopment agency board, cutting off what city administrators say is the city's only potential source of funding for the project.
The redevelopment agency would consider contributing the money only if it were guaranteed funds would be recouped, something project proponents have called unlikely.
Commissioners are to vote Sept. 27 as a commission, not an agency board, on whether to authorize dispersal of the money, and city and state officials plan to brief them beforehand "on the merits of the tunnel project," City Manager Pete Hernandez said.
But Commissioner Tomás Regalado, one of the tunnel's strongest opponents on the commission, said he's not bending, and even one of its biggest supporters has become resigned that the outlook isn't good.
"One commissioner is going to have to change his or her vote," Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said. "I can't imagine a commissioner voting as a commissioner differently than they voted as a CRA (community redevelopment agency) member."
In the face of other commissioners maintaining that redevelopment funds are meant to be spent to improve blighted areas, Mr. Sarnoff has supported use of the money to fund a tunnel because easing traffic could encourage area development, he said.
The tunnel is designed to relieve congestion downtown by diverting port-related trucks through a tunnel system connecting the Port of Miami to Watson Island, enabling traffic to flow onto Interstate 395, bypassing downtown Miami.
But Mr. Regalado, who led the charge to deny redevelopment dollars to the tunnel, said "we have some other things we can use the CRA money for" and still plans to vote down legislation supporting the tunnel, as "the city should not participate in this project."
Commission Chair Angel González is also likely to continue his opposition to the tunnel, said Frank Castañeda, his chief of staff.
"His opinion right now is that $50 million is a lot of money," Mr. Castañeda said. "Everybody wants to reduce taxes, and a $50 million expense is a big amount."
Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, chair of the redevelopment agency, who cast the deciding vote to deny the funds without a guaranteed recoup, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did Commissioner Joe Sanchez, who favored contributing the funds.
The city's reluctance to pitch in drew criticism from county commissioners Tuesday, though several members of the body agreed the timing for such a massive expenditure is not good.
"I still think it's not the moment," Commissioner Javier Souto said.
"The timing is extremely bad right now," Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz said, emphasizing that with $229 million in county budget cuts pending, "I'm not willing to support this."
At the same time, however, Mr. Diaz criticized Miami for so far declining to pay a share.
"I'm disappointed that the city that benefits the most isn't willing to put up the money," he said.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said he expects the deal to crumble without the city's contribution, likening the arrangement to a three-legged stool for which the county and state are two legs.
"The city has to put its down" to make it work, he said.
Commissioner Dorrin Rolle said he is unsure what happens if the city makes its refusal official at the end of the month.
"I'm disappointed that county staff" has not advised commissioners what to do if Miami continues to be absent from the tunnel funding picture, he said.
Another roadblock: the state could redistribute the tunnel's earmarked funds to other projects should Miami drag out its decision or refuse to contribute.
"We can't hold them forever," Mr. Martinez said. If it seems the project won't materialize, the money "would go back to the state pot."
But applying deadline pressure to the commission to approve the project is nothing unusual, Mr. Regalado said.
"That is standard procedure of governments to bring items to the city commission or the county commission with a gun to your head," he said. "They had plenty of time to discuss this with elected officials."
The team named to construct, manage and maintain the tunnel, should it be built, is comprised of French company Bouygues Publics Travaux for construction, Babcock & Brown for banking, Jacobs Engineering, and Transfield Services for transport operations.