It looks, perhaps, like a light show at a post-apocalyptic thrash-metal concert: clouds of swirling dust tinted eerie shades of orange and red by the flashing emergency lights of dozens of construction vehicles, propelled this way and that as they’re caught in the gusts of 44 jet fans, whose loud thrum provides the monotonous soundtrack.
But PortMiami Tunnel workers swear this chaotic and slightly hallucinogenic scene is really the gateway to a speedy, unclogged grid of downtown streets that begins — sort of — nine days from now, when the tunnel officially opens and starts sucking 16,000 port-bound vehicles a day out of the urban traffic flow.
“Today it looks more like an ant farm,” concedes Chris Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire LLC, the consortium of private companies building the billion-dollar tunnel in partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation, the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County.
“You can literally feel the anxiety in that tunnel as we work on the final deadline.”
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The May 19 official opening date is mostly symbolic, a concession to the availability of Gov. Rick Scott, who wants to give a speech on the occasion. Actual traffic won’t begin to flow through the tunnel — which stretches three quarters of a mile from the MacArthur Causeway to the port, without a single stop sign or traffic light — for another 10 days or so, as its hundreds of safety systems get final checks. And mop-up construction will continue until mid-August.
But the deadline is quite real to the contractors, who will be fined $115,000 every day beyond May 19 that the tunnel is not “substantially” complete. And Hodgkins firmly believes they’ll make it.
“Will it be physically ready? Yes, absolutely,” he predicts. “The roads will be paved and the lanes marked, the lights will be on, an ordinary vehicle will be able to drive from the city to the port and back through the tunnel.
“But we also have to have all the safety systems synchronized and inspected before we can turn the public loose in there, and that will take another week or two.”
Miami Herald reporters and photographers made an exploratory trip through the tunnel — which, strictly speaking, is really two side-by-side tunnels, each carrying traffic only in one direction — with Hodgkins this week, as workers began a final, round-the-clock push to finish the tunnel. It was a clamorous and filthy journey.
Even when the staccato roar of construction jackhammers stilled — which was almost never — the ventilation fans throbbed on full power to dissipate the floating dust — airborne remnants of a layer dropped on the newly laid concrete roadway to scar it and make it less slick.
It was also a slow trip. The tunnel’s still-unmounted speed-limit signs will say 35 mph, but we averaged something under 10, and that’s not counting a five-minute delay while a forklift dropped a steel plate over a 12-inch wide chasm in the concrete — an electrical conduit that had been opened for inspection — so we could exit.
The slow pace is mostly due to the bustle of construction workers and their vehicles, everything from midget Bobcat bulldozers to 25-foot cranes. Much of the activity was clustered around the one final brute-force task: the installation of four 30-ton floodgates that will seal the tunnel 24 hours before the approach of a Category 3 storm.
But the crews were also attending to hundreds of smaller details, from pumping slurry — watery, pulverized mud — out of the tunnel’s drainage reservoirs to exterminating bugs (the cyber kind, not some sort of monstrous undersea Palmettos) in the software that controls its 91 surveillance cameras.
The cameras and the rest of the intricate web of safety features enveloping the tunnel were much more obvious at our leisurely speed than they will be when traffic starts zipping by at a normal clip.
Between the cameras and the infrared sensors that will detect oversize trucks and forbidden hazardous-materials cargo, it’s easy to feel watched. It’s also appropriate; the cameras will be monitored on a wall of video screens in an operations center manned by two dozen humans and their accident-detecting army of computer programs, which will — theoretically, at least — instantly lock onto vehicles that are stopped or behaving irregularly.
Some safeguards (say, the emergency phones mounted every 300 feet along the tunnel walls) seem familiar and reassuring; others (say, a sign boldly proclaiming that you’ve entered DELUGE ZONE 2) a little less so.
In fact, “deluge zone” refers not to a section of tunnel wall built by summer interns but a fire-control measure that quickly buries a blaze under a flood of water that puts it out instantly.
The system was devised after the infamous 1999 fire in the seven-mile-long Mont Blanc Tunnel under the Alps that links France and Italy. That fire burned 55 hours and generated so much heat, smoke and toxic gas the tunnel couldn’t be entered for five days.
“Everything we have in our safety systems is the culmination of mistakes made elsewhere,” Hodgkins said. “The Mont Blanc fire killed so many people because it burned so long and gave off so much smoke. So we’ve got a deluge system that will put out fires immediately and fans that will clear the air quickly. The Lincoln Tunnel flooded during Hurricane Sandy, so we’ve got our gates. We’ve learned from everything that went wrong before.”
The most innocuous-looking of those measures — a horizontal bar running through the middle of the railings lining the narrow, emergency-only pedestrian walkways on one side of the tunnel — is actually the grisliest in origin. In the Boston highway tunnel known as the Big Dig, a walkway without the middle rail decapitated so many victims of auto accidents that locals began referring to it as The Guillotine.
Several other rickety-looking pieces of work — sections of tunnel wall seemingly comprised of plywood — turn out to be purely aesthetic safeguards: ceramic-coated steel plates covered with the wooden sheets to protect them from last-second construction nicks and scratches.
The plates, which bear pastel-colored pictures and symbols, are mounted near the five crossover passages, the narrow pedestrian-only corridors that would enable people to flee from one of the tunnels to the other in case of a blockage or emergency.
Not that tunnel operators expect them to be used often, and certainly not on account of ordinary traffic accidents. “The contract with FDOT calls for blockages to be cleared within 12 minutes, or we have to start paying fines,” Hodgkins said. “There will be tow trucks located at either end, 24 hours a day.”
Miami being Miami, one of the trucks will actually be a flatbed vehicle onto which Lamborghinis, Jaguars and other low-slung luxury vehicles can be loaded. “You can’t just tow a Bentley,” Hodgkins noted deadpan.
Some stuff that’s in the tunnel now won’t be there by May 19 — particularly the port-a-potties scattered here and there. (The tunnel is a no-pedestrian, no-bike and no-pee zone.) And some stuff that’s missing will be added, notably lane markings.
But it’s easy to overlook everything that is there: 53,000 tons of cement, 18,000 tons of steel reinforcement, and of course the tunnels themselves, which took two years to bore underneath Biscayne Bay.
“I know it looks like we still have a lot to do,” says Hodgkins. “But you should have seen what it looked like three years ago.”