Miami-Dade County

Decades after conception, Miami has a port tunnel

Directional arrows over the westbound lanes of the PortMiami tunnel shone bright green Friday morning as hundreds of workers put the finishing touches on the $1 billion, under-the-bay facility.

The arrows served as symbolic indicators that the tunnel, more than 30 years in the making, is almost ready to open.

Gov. Rick Scott plans to dedicate the tunnel at 10 a.m. Monday, although regular traffic will not be allowed for several more days while workers perform final tests.

“Everything looks go,” said Chris Hodgkins, vice president of Miami Access Tunnel, the multinational consortium that built the tunnel and will manage and maintain it for the next three decades.

The tunnel’s dedication and subsequent opening to traffic mark the completion of one of the most expensive and elaborate transportation projects in South Florida history.

Those involved from the beginning point to then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre as the first to propose the idea of a port tunnel. Ferre credits the late congressman Claude Pepper for funding initial studies. Ferre has proposed that the tunnel be named after Pepper, saying he was the only lawmaker in Florida’s congressional delegation at the time to enthusiastically embrace the idea.

“He immediately saw the wisdom of the project,” Ferre recalled. “Within a month Miami-Dade County had $2.5 million to do a [tunnel] study.”

A report prepared for the Downtown Development Authority in April 1983 points to the tunnel as the solution to improve access to the port from area expressways. Many of the cargo trucks headed to the port use the expressways to get to freight warehouses at Miami International Airport and Doral or to head north to other cities.

Federal transportation authorities liked the idea, but it wasn’t until 2000 that they actually issued a statement indicating that the tunnel was feasible. That led ultimately to the formation of a partnership involving the Florida Department of Transportation, Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami to fund the tunnel.

The final public-private partnership that emerged included the Luxenbourg-based financial firm Meridiam Infrastructure Finance and the French construction firm Bouygues Travaux Publics. Miami Access Tunnel was named concessionaire in charge of the project.

The official project go-ahead came on Oct. 15, 2009.

A $45 million, 6,000-ton tunnel boring machine arrived at PortMiami in pieces aboard a cargo vessel on June 23, 2011. Local girl scouts later named the machine Harriet Tubman, in honor of an African-American abolitionist who helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad.

Boring began in November 2011 at the MacArthur Causeway median at Watson Island. Harriet popped out at the port on July 31, 2012. Then Harriet was turned around and bored the westbound lanes back to Watson Island, where it arrived on May 6, 2013.

Since then, workers have been outfitting the tunnel with the roadway as well as electronic control and safety systems, work that continued last week.

The tunnel provides the first direct access to the port from area expressways. Currently, cargo trucks meander through downtown streets to get to the port. Their preferred route, after exiting Interstate 395, is Northeast Second Avenue south to Northeast Fifth Street, where they turn east toward Port Boulevard.

Trucks carrying hazardous materials will be barred from the tunnel. These trucks, fewer than 2 percent of the 1.5 million trucks that annually go to the port, will continue to use the downtown route.

Over-height trucks also will be prohibited. Tunnel entrances have been equipped with infrared sensors that will be triggered when an over-height truck approaches. Even if the driver ignores early warnings, chains — called tickle bars — will drop from the tunnel ceiling and hit the top of the truck as a further warning. If the truck keeps advancing a loud horn will sound, electronic messaging boards will flash orders to stop and directional arrows over the lanes will change from green to red and a gate will close the road.

Operations will be monitored from a command-and-control center through 91 cameras lining the tunnel.

Tunnel managers have also worked out accident protocols to deal with mishaps large and small. Tunnel workers will have 12 minutes to remove minor accidents or pay a penalty.

Rescue personnel will be able to get from one side of the tunnel to the other through five emergency cross-passages built every 700 feet along the twin-tube facility. Emergency phones, 42 in total, will be located every 300 feet. Emergency vehicles and tow trucks will be stationed at both ends of the tunnel at all times.

Larger incidents may require closure of the tunnel and possible evacuation. People on one side of the tunnel can escape to the other through the cross-passages. Major fires will be put out by cascades of water that will pour from so-called deluge zones.

The tunnel will be open to private vehicles, but cargo trucks are expected to be the heaviest users, along with buses carrying passengers to cruise ships. There will be no tolls.

Twin tubes inside the tunnel carry a two-lane road in each direction, with a 35-mph speed limit and a 5-degree grade. The deepest point on the almost mile-long tunnel is 120 feet under sea level.

Once traffic is allowed into the tunnel, the tunnel entrance will be on the left lane of the MacArthur Causeway at Watson Island. The bridge linking the MacArthur Causeway to I-395 has been widened to accommodate the new lanes leading to the tunnel.

The portals at the tunnel entrances and exits house massive 50-ton floodgates that will drop to seal the tunnel watertight in case a Category 3 or stronger hurricane approaches. The portals were designed by Bernardo Fort-Brescia, head of the Miami firm Arquitectonica, to resemble Egyptian monuments.

Hodgkins, the MAT vice president, said the tunnel is deemed among the safest in the world because it has redundant safety features that prior tunnels did not have.

“This tunnel is a culmination of fixing what went wrong in any other tunnel,” he said.

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