Miami-Dade officials: No port tunnel? Then show us the money
By Risa Polansky
When it comes to building a tunnel to the Port of Miami, local officials are prepared to fight.
And if they can't have the tunnel itself, they want the money it would have taken to build it.
State transportation officials late last week told Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez they would not close the deal on the planned $1 billion-plus infrastructure project because of equity issues with the contractor.
Local leaders say they were "blindsided" by the announcement and insist the project is still viable.
Mr. Alvarez and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz are asking to meet with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to try to keep the tunnel project alive, insisting there's no reason to stop the procurement process now.
The tunnel is meant to thin downtown Miami traffic by sending trucks underwater from Watson Island to the port, making use of I-395 instead of Biscayne Boulevard and downtown streets.
Commissioners stood by the county mayor at a meeting Tuesday, agreeing Miami-Dade should fight for the tunnel — or at least for the $457 million the state set aside for the long-planned project.
If state officials won't budge on the tunnel, "I hope we would all sit and fight for the money that was allocated to Miami-Dade County," Carlos Gimenez said, citing several other local transportation projects that could use funding, including a State Road 826-State Road 836 interchange and a plan to deepen the port's channel to allow larger ships access.
Officials must work to "at least get that money down here," Mr. Gimenez said. "We've got a lot of projects we need that money for."
Agreed Katy Sorenson: "Tallahassee has to understand that the era of "starve the beast' is overů we are the biggest contributors to the state's coffers with our sales taxes, and we certainly deserve to have this kind of investment in our community."
Even tunnel opponents piped up for the cause.
"I was one of the persons who voted against the mega-plan" of public works projects that included the tunnel project, Rebeca Sosa said. But the majority of the commission approved it, "so that is what stays, and that is what we need to fight for."
Even if the tunnel dies, "the money has to stay for infrastructure in the Port of Miami," she said. "It's time for us to stand strong against Tallahassee using our money from our taxpayers to subsidize the northern part of the state."
Joe Martinez said he's still anti-tunnel.
"However, I do believe that that money should come back here," he said. "That money is desperately needed."
Gus Pego, secretary of the local department of transportation district, said in an interview Monday that "the [tunnel] project is still in our work program. It's still funded."
The state is ending the procurement process with the selected contractor, but the money is part of strategic intermodal funds — a statewide pot — and "still slated for this project," he said.
He could not answer when the state might seek new vendors.
"I just really don't know those timeframes. We're just getting the dust settled. We haven't developed our next steps yet."
Mr. Pego acknowledged that, now that the port tunnel project isn't moving forward as planned, other localities are probably eyeing the hundreds of millions of dollars for their own transportation projects.
"There's no doubt around the state people are looking at that," he said. "But currently it's in our work program."
It's up to local leaders to help keep it there.
"As long as the MPO [Metropolitan Planning Organization] continues to make this its highest priority, we will do what we can to keep it funded," Mr. Pego said.
County commissioners, along with municipal officials, sit on the planning organization's board.
The organization — which is responsible for transportation planning in Miami-Dade — is to meet today (12/18), and the tunnel is likely to come up, planning organization Director José Luis Mesa said.
The tunnel has "been a priority of our board in the past, so I don't think that's changed, but then it remains to be seen what the new details are on these new twists on the project," he said, unable to cite what the board might consider as other options.
"I don't know that right now there is a discussion about alternatives more than there is a question of clarifying what happened to the project."