Traffic sailing through long-awaited PortMiami tunnel

08/03/2014 2:39 PM

08/03/2014 8:04 PM

Trucks, cars, SUVs and motorcycles flowed through the long-awaited PortMiami tunnel on Sunday, finally open to traffic after a two-month construction delay.

Regular traffic, including tractor trailers, began driving through shortly after a motorcade of officials and VIPs took the first pass through at Watson Island on the MacArthur Causeway.

Four police cruisers, sirens wailing and emergency lights flashing, led the ceremonial opening caravan. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, a Harley enthusiast, and Miami-Dade Commissioner José “Pepe” Díaz rode through on motorcycles.

The opening marks the end of repeated delays for the $1 billion under-the-bay tunnel. Engineers had to deal with last-minute flaws including rattling exhaust jet fans and a leaky drainage pipe.

“It’s a great day,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez shortly after the motorcade emerged from the eastbound lanes of the tunnel.

“It was a little bit delayed, but, you know, they had to do things right,” he said. “We had to make sure that the ventilation system was working. There was a leak in the tunnel, but I’m very happy that this tunnel is now open.”

Although the tunnel is open to all traffic, the main goal is to encourage as many cargo truck drivers as possible to go under the bay to relieve traffic on the surface streets downtown, the mayor said.

Cargo trucks contribute to congestion as they meander through downtown to get to the seaport from area expressways. Now that the tunnel is open, trucks can avoid downtown and drive directly to the port from Interstate 95 and State Road 836.

“This is great for downtown,” said Alyce Robertson, executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority. “All the trucks will be off the street, and it’ll be safer for our pedestrians.”

The tunnel will be operated and maintained for three decades by Miami Access Tunnel, the concessionaire that also built the facility through a contractor, the French firm Bouygues.

The contractor had to pay MAT a fine of $115,000 for every day the tunnel remained closed. By the time the tunnel opened Sunday, the payments had reached nearly $9 million.

The port tunnel was scheduled to open shortly after Gov. Rick Scott ceremonially dedicated it May 19. But then the malfunctioning equipment put everything on hold.

A German-built tunnel boring machine excavated the tunnel between November 2011 and May 2013.

South Florida Girl Scouts named the tunnel boring machine Harriet after 19th century African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Those Girl Scouts were given a private tour of the tunnel Saturday afternoon.

“The tunnel is massive, so big my house would fit in it,” said Katherine Kaiser, 14. “I still don’t know how they built something so giant under water, but it’s awesome.”

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