Use tunnel setback to dig downtown, seaport out of a hole
By Michael Lewis
As downtown truck traffic grew year by year officials sat idle, awaiting a Port of Miami tunnel in 2012 to unclog streets.
Guess what? While they rocked, the tunnel faded to a mere maybe for 2016 or later — and truck traffic keeps multiplying.
The state had joined the county and City of Miami in 2007 to hire a team to bore from Watson Island to the seaport. But the state last week started the process over, saying it would meet with local governments and then decide by July what it wants to do.
Rationale for a tunnel has been to thin traffic, benefitting residents and businesses plus shippers, who moved nearly 8 million tons here in 2007, and the Port of Miami, which vies to enhance its status among top cargo hubs.
Officials meanwhile shunned other traffic relievers because they feared, correctly, that if they succeeded no one would risk $1.7 billion or more to dig a very steep tunnel under Biscayne Bay.
If a tunnel were the only answer it would be worth a look, because the seaport is a strong economic engine, with an estimated $17 billion annual impact supporting 176,000 jobs, and cargo is up 5% this year. Moving freight quickly is imperative.
But sentiment is building to try other means to thin traffic now, because we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Foes of a rapid fix, however, have vested interests in pouring money under the bay.
County Commission Chairman Dennis Moss, who is as firmly committed to spending $1.7 billion on a tunnel as he was last month to spending $2 billion on an equally vital baseball stadium, said in a statement last week, "Long ago it was determined that the Port Tunnel was the best way to alleviate port access concerns..."
That's true — but only because the county refused to look at other solutions when it voted to dig the tunnel, or since.
But we must now revisit those assumptions of long ago.
We're deep in recession, short of cash, and the state has started over. A tunnel is now seven or more years away even if we can find a plan that can be financed and a gold-plated bidder willing to do it at $1.7 billion or how much more?
So, with scarce funds targeted for stadiums and bailouts for performing arts centers and Jungle Island and children's museums and anyone else who comes for a handout, it's time to look at realistic alternatives.
The simplest and least costly way to unclog downtown is to have truckers enter and leave the seaport at night and pre-dawn. That, in weeks, could do the trick. And even tunnel proponents recognize that to meet its competition the seaport must begin 24-hour work.
A second answer is to ship port cargo overnight by rail. A train to the port that can haul as much as 100 or more trucks now runs one night weekly, handling 8% of cargo. Run it seven nights and it's 56%.
A third response is to ship some port cargo in small boats up the Miami River to hubs that would link with trucks far from downtown. Large hubs in West Dade could transship cargo from containers coming via rail.
All of these solutions could begin now. None is costly. Even if we couldn't deter government from eventually squandering $1.7 billion on a tunnel whose financial, construction and maintenance risks would be far greater, these three measures could speed cargo today.
A fourth prong is to run a $24 million ramp onto I-95 from Northeast Sixth Street and open two more traffic lanes, offering a straight shot into and out of the port without snarling roads north of downtown.
Those four combined would benefit sea cargo lines, which oppose the tunnel. They wouldn't harm cruise lines, which reject the tunnel. They would aid downtown interests, who want to thin traffic.
Even truckers who must work in the quiet hours would benefit, because with low traffic overnight they could make more trips to and from the port in less time, increasing profits.
So, who wouldn't win? Officials who benefit somehow when government spends massively.
But by not digging, the City of Miami would retain $88 million and Miami-Dade would have $402 million to use elsewhere. Maybe that can persuade government not to pour $1.7 billion into a hole under Biscayne Bay — at least, not without trying solid alternatives.
Commissioner Moss and colleagues need to reexamine their vote of years ago in light of new realities, not blindly follow a road that would sink vital resources.
Those in government with the vision to spark quicker, cheaper and safer solutions should get the process rolling.
The state's detour of a tunnel deal is no painful setback, but rather a vital opportunity we must seize immediately.
Instead of sitting rocking while waiting seven more years for a tunnel, become a 24-hour port for trucking, add rail runs, utilize the Miami River and add off-port cargo hubs. Right now, end downtown's traffic snarl inexpensively and speed vital cargo on its way.