More than two months and $7 million in contractor fines after it was supposed to open, Port Miami’s billion-dollar tunnel is finally about ready to handle traffic, officials said Thursday.
“It’ll be open in early August, no later than two weeks from today,” said Chris Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire, the consortium of companies that built the tunnel and will operate it.
The tunnel was scheduled to debut on May 19, pulling a projected 16,000 port-bound vehicles a day off Miami’s downtown streets. But various glitches, including malfunctioning exhaust fans and a leaking drainage pipe, have prevented it from opening.
“I know it’s a cliché, but whether it’s your kitchen or a tunnel under Biscayne Bay, you don’t let the contractor leave until everything’s perfect,” Hodgkins said, reciting a phrase that’s become a mantra to nearly everybody connected with the tunnel project over the past two months.
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The contractor, Paris-based Bouygues, has been paying a fine of $115,000 to MAT Concessionaire every day the tunnel remains closed. At the same time, the Florida Department of Transportation has delayed beginning its $33 million annual payment to the concessionaire until the tunnel opens.
But a flurry of activity in the past few days has signaled that the tunnel is nearing completion. On Wednesday, workers finished the major surgery necessary to fix the drainage leak: a 2,000-foot trench, ripped through 15 inches of cement, four inches of asphalt and 15 feet of compacted concrete, where a new polyethylene pipe was laid.
“To be honest, it was pretty heartbreaking to see our brand new road torn up like that,” said a still chastened Hodgkins.
The first pipe was shredded and splintered in places by heavy machinery that passed over it when the tunnel surface was still just a dirty road. Three times, workers unsuccessfully tried to fix it with new linings. Finally a new pipe was laid alongside the first one. It passed a final pressure test Wednesday.
“We didn’t want a fixed pipe,” said Hodgkins. “We wanted a new pipe…. We are accepting nothing less than perfection. We’re going to be operating this thing 30 years.”
Meanwhile, about 30 of the 44 jet fans that were removed from the tunnel have been replaced, and installation of the rest is under way. Two of the fans failed shortly after being turned on in May and the rest were taken out as a precaution.
After extensive testing, MAT officials concluded that the fans were the victim of a series of quality-control errors, ranging from the use of different nuts and bolts than called for in the design to incorrect torque (in laymen's terms, the bolts weren’t tightened right.)
Their reinstallation is being overseen by an independent company not associated with either the firm that manufactured the fans nor the firm installing them.
The west-bound side of the tunnel, where virtually all work is completed, looked pristine Thursday. The east-bound side, where fans are still being installed and cosmetic work to disguise the carnage wreaked on the road by the pipe repair is under way, was busier and messier.
Workmen perched atop 23-foot lifts bolted the new fans into place as crews hauled portable generators from spot to spot for testing. Tarps placed on the road to catch stray cement from the patchup of pavement torn away in the pipe repair were still scattered here and there.
And amidst it all, the seemingly endless testing and tweaking of emergency systems continued.
“We have to be ready for every possible scenario,” Hodgkins said. That lesson was drummed home when the engine of very first cargo truck to pass through the tunnel during a purely symbolic opening ceremony on May 19 featuring a speech by Gov. Rick Scott shuddered and died in the middle of the tunnel.
“Happily, we had our tow truck right there,” Hodgkins said. Since then, the emergency systems haven’t had to deal with anything more serious than the occasional rogue bicyclist who defies the big CLOSED signs and pedals into the tunnel.