Miami-Dade County

Delayed Miami port tunnel to open Monday morning

Without speeches or brass bands, just — hopefully — a smooth and steady flow of thousands of vehicles, PortMiami’s new tunnel will open to the public at 6 a.m. Monday after 11 weeks of exasperating and costly delays.

“No pomp and circumstance, just getting down to business,” said Chris Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire, the consortium of companies that built the tunnel and will operate it. “And the only prize for the first customer will be a quick drive time into the port. We’re a tunnel, not Best Buy.”

The last issue preventing the tunnel’s use — jet exhaust fans that vibrated themselves to pieces — was declared officially resolved Tuesday after the fans operated continuously for 24 hours without a glitch (Though a just-to-be-absolutely-damn-sure 12-hour test with the fans blowing in the opposite direction was underway Wednesday.).

The state fire marshal’s office began a three-day final inspection of the tunnel’s safety systems Wednesday. First task: Making sure the tunnel’s 42 emergency telephones are working.

“We’ve already tested and retested and retested that and everything else,” Hodgkins said. “But we need independent corroboration. After that, we just need to clean up a little, and we’re good to go.”

The $1 billion tunnel is expected to pull 16,000 port-bound vehicles a day off Miami’s downtown streets by routing them onto the MacArthur Causeway and then under Biscayne Bay for three-quarters of a mile

The tunnel was originally scheduled to open May 19, and officials staged a grand ceremony — including a speech by Gov. Rick Scott — even though they knew it wouldn’t be ready for traffic for at least another 10 days or so.

But the 10 days stretched into 11 weeks as the exhaust fans malfunctioned and a drainage pipe sprang a mysterious leak. All the while, the Paris-based construction company Bouygues paid a daily fine of $115,000 to MAT Concessionaire — a forfeiture that will total nearly $9 million by Monday.

Taxpayers, however, lost nothing except an occasional temper. The Florida Department of Transportation won’t start making its $33 million annual payment to the concessionaire until the tunnel opens.

As the opening of the tunnel slipped to late May, then mid-July and finally early August (the precise date changed three times last week), tunnel officials could barely conceal their exasperation. Their confidence in the announcement of a Monday opening could be gauged by the fact that they could actually make some jokes about the delays.

“We will deliver no tunnel before its time,” cracked Hodgkins. “Like a bottle of fine wine, we wanted this thing to be perfect.”