Tunnel supporters make final push before Sept. 30 deadline
By Wayne Tompkins
The troubled Port of Miami tunnel project's supporters are making a final push to persuade a reluctant City of Miami commission to reverse course and approve its $50 million funding share for the $1 billion venture.
The commission is expected to vote on Sept. 27 on whether to pitch in the money, which is the missing piece to be added to the state and county's share of the one-mile project linking Dodge and Watson islands.
"We'll be meeting with and briefing each of the commissioners one-on-one," said Johnny Martinez, district six secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation. "I want them to have the facts to make the most informed decision possible. We're putting our cards face-up. That's all we can do."
The fateful meeting is scheduled three days before a deadline, set by the consortium that will build and operate the tunnel before it raises its prices. If the deadline lapses, soaring construction costs could put the tunnel's price tag out of reach, effectively killing the project. State transportation officials say any increases would force them to divert the state money to projects elsewhere in Florida.
State engineers, port officials and the majority of Miami-Dade commissioners argue that the tunnel is badly needed to relieve heavy truck traffic from the port into downtown, and that waiting any longer would only worsen the traffic and make a solution more expensive. The tunnel would route trucks directly to I-395 from the port, bypassing downtown streets.
While supporting the project, Miami-Dade commissioners and Mayor Carlos Alvarez have made it clear that no additional funding will come from the county should the city not approve the $50 million.
The mayor is "very insistent that the county's contribution have a hard cap — which is $402.5 million — so we are not responsible for any unanticipated project costs," Alvarez spokeswoman Vicki Mallette said.
Miami's city commission, sitting as the Community Redevelopment Agency, voted down 3 to 2 a proposal in July to use that agency's funds for the city's share, with the majority — Michelle Spence-Jones, Tomás Regalado and Angel Gonzalez — saying they wanted a guarantee that the CRA would recoup its money.
City Manager Pete Hernandez has been frantically searching for another source of city funding, and FDOT plans to ask contractors for an extension. Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Martinez both have said a recoup is unlikely.
Ms. Mallette said Mayor Alvarez is "hopeful that the City of Miami will fill the funding gap" and that it is "premature to speculate on what the county's options might be if the project falls through."
A new complication arose two weeks ago when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that voters must approve the use of redevelopment agency funds for capital improvements. That means even if the CRA reversed course, delays that a referendum would require would be prohibitive.
"I just want to clear my conscience that I did everything I could to make sure the commissioners have all the facts (before they vote)," Mr. Martinez said of his last-minute pitch.
He said the state currently has no alternative plan to relieve port-generated truck traffic downtown, other than asking the consortium to extend a deadline he said was already difficult to convince the team to hold until Sept. 30.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.