Railroad not answer to port-related traffic woes, pros say
By Wayne Tompkins
Railroad-based solutions to relieve truck congestion at the Port of Miami, and on surrounding downtown streets, are not a viable alternative to the proposed $1 billion tunnel project, port officials and transportation experts say.
Most of the 9 million tons of annual cargo the port now handles stays within the South Florida area, and only about 11% of it heads north — not enough to make a rail option economically feasible, they say.
"The volume is not there," port spokeswoman Andria Muniz-Amador said, meaning rail costs for shippers would be prohibitive.
A state, county and City of Miami-funded $1 billion project to build a car and truck tunnel connecting the port directly to I-395, the favored solution of most transportation experts, is stalled as the city balks at authorizing its $50 million share of the cost. The state and county already have pledged funding.
"The reliance on trucks for regional cargo distributionů has created a long history of community conflicts given the required use of (downtown) streets to access the port," said a Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization study released in February, which looked at transportation options for the port.
Most of the cargo is containerized and moves by truck to warehousing and distribution centers in western Miami-Dade County and to the Florida East Coast Railway's Hialeah intermodal facility. The rail line currently serving the port is a single track with no nearby support or yard tracks needed to manage train flows and train lengths into and out of the port, the study said. The rail line into the port is not used for cargo, the study said. Its use is limited to specific port needs such as transporting heavy equipment.
More frequent trains could relieve truck traffic, but because the tracks enter downtown, the trains would also create significant traffic problems "along with concomitant noise issues," said Larry Levis, partner and vice president of architecture with BEA International, which is doing work revamping cruise terminals for the port.
The FEC has proposed bringing one train in and one train out of the port daily between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. to handle the existing traffic being transported to the Hialeah rail terminal for northbound service.
While this would reduce traffic and noise issues, the study said the idea has met opposition from port staff and tenants who resist giving up as much as 25 acres on the port for an intermodal container transfer facility with limited service that a rail upgrade would need.
The study, prepared for the Metropolitan Planning Organization by Cambridge Systematics Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, said a rail tunnel linking the port to the mainland and passing under much of downtown would have at least the same price tag as the proposed truck tunnel.
For a rail tunnel to work, a train would have to descend into the tunnel — and ascend out of it — at a very slight angle requiring a lengthy, land-consuming approach.
"The grades you can use for the rail are very limited," said Larry Foutz, senior transportation manager for the Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization. "You've got to go so far back to the east (at the port) to get those trains underground. You can do it, but the cost is too high" in land and dollars.
Most of the port's wares don't have far to travel, he said, making trucks more practical.
"Because we're at the bottom of a peninsula, most of the cargo traffic stays within South Florida," Mr. Foutz said. "That doesn't leave a lot of traffic, only a couple of trains a day, and you have to start looking at the cost-effectiveness of building a tunnel and taking up valuable port space for a container facility."
Mr. Foutz said the Metropolitan Planning Organization has just started another study of the entire Miami-Dade freight corridor, which roughly follows the Dolphin Expressway. Some transportation experts have said the Miami River could be used to help alleviate highway container traffic, though shippers have expressed concern that a river-based system could increase their handling costs.
A key focus of the Metropolitan Planning Organization study was whether Southern California's Alameda Corridor, an extensive below-street grade rail network serving the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, would be a feasible model in Miami. The 20-mile corridor, a $2.4 billion mix of bridges, underpasses, overpasses and street improvements, eliminates more than 200 at-grade street crossings while connecting the ports to inland terminals.
While the study doesn't envision duplication on the scale of that corridor, it found that the combination of a rail tunnel, the on-port container facility needed to service it and a system of trenches placing railroads under street level, while technically feasible, would not be cost-effective.
"For a rail tunnel to be operationally feasible, grade separations must be extended through Miami to a point outside the immediate area of congestion and support track must be developed," the study found.
The study's analysis says the corridor could be built within existing rights-of-way along with a 25-acre terminal footprint on Dodge Island, where the port is based.
If the car and truck tunnel does go through, the study says, the railroad option will become just another dead idea.
"If the port tunnel advances," it says, "there will be no support for a high-capacity rail corridor."