In what’s sure to be one of many major roadway overhauls taking place in major American cities as aging and obsolete infrastructure produce headaches and draw public attention, the thriving Port of Miami is undergoing a major tunneling project to connect the economic hub directly with Southern Florida’s major highway systems.
The project, with estimations from $1-2 billion, was approved in 2007, but because of the economic downturn of 2008 and the cancellation of major financial sponsors, work for the project was suspended. After intense lobbying by Mayor Carlos Alvarez, financial closing was reached in late 2009, with construction breaking ground in May of the following year.
Infrastructure for the Future
The Miami Port Tunnel project’s main function is to lighten port traffic in the downtown area by providing a direct connection from the Port of Miami to I-395 via Watson Island. With nearly 16,000 vehicles, nearly a third of which being large trucks, moving in and out of the Port every day, congestion was becoming a major issue in the downtown area – but the project’s major impetus was future-oriented around the success of the City’s bustling Port.
Another major infrastructure project, the Panama Canal Expansion, is projected to dramatically increase port traffic in the coming years as the Canal’s third set of locks allows the world’s largest shipping vessels to move through the straight. The Port of Miami is the closest U.S. port to the shipping lanes, and is expected to become one of the most desirable landings for U.S.-bound shipments (especially after the region’s Deep Dredge project – aimed at prepping the port channels for the world’s largest ships – is completed in 2014). Also, a burgeoning cruise ship industry is already taxing the area’s transportation networks – with more direct connections to the port’s facilities, officials hope that the region’s economic growth won’t be hindered by logistical issues.
The project itself consists of two 1.1 kilometer, double-lane automotive tunnels connecting the MacArthur Causeway on Watson Island and the Port of Miami, located on Dodge Island. The tunnel will be dug underneath the cruise side of the Government Cut shipping lane, 60 feet beneath the seabed.
The French firm Bouygues Construction, who played an integral role in the construction on the Channel Tunnel in Europe, was chosen to oversee the tunnel dig. The boring machine built for the project – a $45 million behemoth manufactured in Germany – is over 160 meters long, 12 meters in diameter, and weighs in excess of 2,500 tons. The first tunnel is expected to be completed sometime within the next few months, with the second tunnel ready by 2013.
Also connected with the project is an expansion of the MacArthur Causeway, allowing an extra lane in both directions to lead to the tunnel entrance and from the exit. Additional roadway work will be needed on both Dodge and Watson Islands, with a projected opening date for the entire project in May 2014.
Financing the Dig
The Port of Miami Tunnel project is a public-private partnership (PPP), which is designed to transfer responsibility for design, building, finance, operation, and maintenance to a private corporation – in this case the Miami Access Tunnel (MAT) Concessionaire LLC. Payments will be distributed via the Florida Department of Transportation during the construction period and then over 30 years following completion of the roadway, with full rights being given to the FDOT come 2044.
Many have voiced concern over the project’s expense, questioning the tunnel’s necessity and comparing the effort to Boston’s Big Dig disaster that came with spiraling costs and over a decade of delays. City officials and project managers, however, are confident the roadway will be completed on schedule and under budget, with major benefits to the City’s economy and a sharp reduction in traffic congestion. As dozens of cities around the United States prep for similarly-sized infrastructure projects, all eyes will be on Miami in the coming years to rate the effort as a model project – or major flop.