Miami-Dade County

Leaky pipes, other mishaps keep PortMiami Tunnel from opening

A month after its ballyhooed but entirely ceremonial opening, PortMiami’s billion-dollar tunnel has yet to carry a single vehicle under Biscayne Bay — and it may be several more weeks before the tunnel is ready for real traffic, officials say.

Leaky pipes and other matters of literal nuts and bolts have prevented the tunnel from getting the necessary permits to open. The tunnel contractor is scheduled to give its latest progress report to state and local transportation officials Wednesday, but even the most optimistic no longer expect it to open before July.

“The whole project team is disappointed,” conceded Gus Pego, the senior Florida Department of Transportation official in Miami-Dade County. “The contract called for it to be done May 19, and we were fully expecting to open it then.”

The failure to deliver the tunnel has already cost the contractor, the Paris-based Bouygues, more than $3 million in fines — a sum that grows $115,000 each day. The fines go to the private consortium MAT Concessionaire, which will operate the tunnel when it opens.

Meanwhile, the state of Florida hasn’t started writing checks for the $34 million annual fee it will pay for public access to the tunnel. And the 16,000 vehicles the tunnel was expected to take off Miami’s downtown streets continue to clog the traffic grid.

“The disappointment is that the tunnel isn’t ready yet,” said Pego. “But the beauty is that the penalties aren’t being paid by taxpayers.”

Added Chris Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire: “This will go on until we’ve gotten it all right. It’s just like redoing your kitchen. You don’t want the contractor to leave until everything is done and ready to go.”

Among the nettlesome problems that have kept the tunnel closed:

• A leaky pipe in the system that pumps rainwater and other spillage out of the reservoir where it collects in the bottom of the tunnel, 100 feet below Biscayne Bay. The pipe is a “force main,” which means it’s supposed to be able to maintain a pressure of 100 pounds per square inch for six hours while moving water. But it doesn’t, which means the water is leaking out somewhere.

Construction officials believe the pipe was damaged during final work on the tunnel roadway. They’ve torn out 65 feet of pipe and re-lined it, but haven’t tested the repair yet.

The word “leak” conjures visions of Biscayne Bay breaking through the tunnel ceiling in a torrent of Cecil B. DeMille dimensions, but officials stress the leak is strictly internal. “We’re not talking about the bay flooding the tunnel,” said Pego. “Think of it as the pipe under your sink.”

• Two of the 44 big jet exhaust fans that ventilate the tunnel were knocked out by unexpectedly heavy vibrations. “If it happens to two, it can happen to the rest,” said Hodgkins. All the fans have been shut down and their blades and other inner workings removed for X-rays to make sure they haven’t suffered internal damage. The cause of the vibration is still under investigation.

• Some of the bolts that hold the jet fans to the tunnel’s ceiling failed to live up to the torque standards, the amount of force needed to tighten them. They’re all being tested and reinspected.

Until the exhaust and pumping systems are functioning correctly, tunnel operators can’t be certain that the complex network of software that makes everything work together is hunky-dory, either. Software testing has also been delayed by the fact that the tunnel’s operations center only got a certificate of occupancy a few days ago.

“Until then, we couldn’t move everybody into it,” Hodgkins said.

With the operations center finally up and running, officials on Monday staged a multi-jurisdictional fire drill that had been originally scheduled in May. Cops, firefighters and paramedics from a dozen or more forces streamed into the tunnel to rescue “victims” of a mock collision between a van and an automobile.

The drill was designed mostly to test emergency software and whether the various agencies would be able to talk to one another through their maze of differing equipment and communications frequencies. (Officials said later everything worked pretty well.) So artistic verisimilitude wasn’t terribly important, and the drill mostly looked like a cheesy disaster movie that ran out of money halfway through the production.

The van wasn’t knocked on its side, as the script called for, nor were there any flames or visible gore. Nobody screamed, “This smoke tears at my throat like a knife!” And the vehicle occupants looked surprising chipper for half-dead victims of serious head injuries.

In fact, the most dramatic moment may have occurred during the pre-drill briefing, when one police officer made a wisecrack about another disaster that occurred halfway across the country in San Antonio on Sunday night. Ambulances wouldn’t be able to reach the tunnel via the bridge next to American Airlines Arena, he shouted, because it was barricaded. “There’s a Heat game!” he exclaimed, then added in mock recollection, “Oh, wait....”

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