Miami-Dade County

Of Klingon and slurry: Answers about the new PortMiami Tunnel

Three decades and a billion dollars after it was first conceived, the PortMiami tunnel finally goes on display Monday at a ceremonial opening with Gov. Rick Scott. But here are some questions his speech probably won’t answer.

Q. Why can Rick Scott drive in the tunnel but I can’t?

It’s still undergoing safety tests. Tunnel operators need to take the software that controls and coordinates more than 400 moving systems on some dry runs not involving bulldozers and glorified golf carts, the kinds of vehicles that have mostly moved through it during construction.

They also have to give their emergency systems a full-bore test. Planners devised 18 different emergency plans, designed to handle occurrences ranging from relatively simple car crashes to we’d-have-to-kill-you-if-we-told-you terrorist threats. They’ll get an acid test sometime in the next few days when state and local officials drop a surprise misadventurous scenario on them.

Q. Why doesn’t the tunnel have access for westbound traffic coming from Miami Beach on the MacArthur causeway?

Because $1 billion doesn’t buy what it used to. Officials decided that hooking the westbound side of the MacArthur to the tunnel would involve too many dollars and too few vehicles.

“We do not have an entry point from Miami Beach,” says Christopher Hodgkins, vice president of MAT Concessionaire LLC, the consortium building the tunnel, “because our analysis of the traffic showed that most of the traffic headed to the port came from expressways to the west of the MacArthur Causeway, not the beach.”

Q. What is all that weird Klingon-looking writing on the portal at the tunnel entrance?

The Latin conjugations of the verb “navigate.”

Q. Latin’s been a dead language for about a thousand years. Do the tunnel guys think it’s coming back?

“I’m sure there was a reason for the portal design,” says Hodgkins diplomatically. “But it’s above my pay grade.”

Q. What are those black-box thingies at the tunnel entrances? They don’t look like cameras.

They’re infrared detectors. One measures height and triggers alarms if a vehicle is taller than 15 feet, the height of the tunnel. Another checks on air quality and carbon dioxide emissions.

Q. Will this attract a lot of tunnel tourists, people fascinated by its amazing length and depth?

Not likely. At three-quarters of a mile long and 100 feet deep, our tunnel is pretty much a runt. The Seikan Tunnel, which links the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, is 33 miles long and 790 feet deep. The Cu Chi tunnels, built by the Viet Cong guerrillas to smuggle troops and supplies during the Vietnam war, are believed to be somewhere between 75 and 150 miles in combined length.

And unless — maybe that should be “until” — our tunnel is afflicted with such typical South Florida phenomenons as face-eating zombies or train-riding sharks, it doesn’t even get weirdness points. It’s not nuke-proof like the 2,000-foot tunnel entrance to the subterranean NORAD headquarters at Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, and doesn’t have an amusing name like the Jiucyudong Tunnel in Taiwan or even windows like Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel in Utah.

Q. Is the tunnel really free?

Not exactly. There are no tolls to pay, but MAT Concessionaire, which will operate the tunnel, gets $33 million a year from the state of Florida. And you know where that money comes from.

Q. What was the hardest part of tunnel construction?

The politics. When construction began in 2011, taxpayer rage over the Miami Marlins stadium deal was at its peak. “The idea of a publicly funded construction project was a total skunk,” recalls Hodgkins. “We weren’t the Marlins, but nobody cared.”

The builders parried community criticism by spreading the money around. Keeping expenses down took a back seat to keeping potential pressure groups happy, literally from the first moments of construction. Hodgkins noted that trucks belonging to the contractor putting up a fence to guard the excavation site bore a phone number with a 678 area code.

“I check and discovered they were from Atlanta,” he remembers. ‘I said, ‘No, no, no.’ But they were the low bidder, everybody said. ‘No, no, no,’ I repeated. ‘We’re in a fishbowl here. Local only.’

Similarly, construction hiring was done not on the basis of skills but ethnic sensitivities. “You can’t pick people by the color of their skin,” Hodgkins says. “But you can pick them by their zip codes.”

Q. But it was tough boring through all that hard ground, right?

Actually, the hardest part was boring through the softest ground — the pockets of pulverized mud known as slurry, through which the blades of the four-story-tall digging machine moved so rapidly that they burned out. In the end, workers had to make the ground harder — by injecting 50,000 cubic yards of cement — to complete the dig.

A similar problem arose when it came time to dig the five undersea cross-passages between the two sides of the tunnel that will be used for emergency evacuations. The seabed had to be frozen to 27 degrees below zero for more than 60 days with a brine solution, then chipped away. “It looked like Medusa’s head, rubber hoses running everywhere,” Hodgkins says.

That cloud, at least, had a silver lining: Ice formed on some of the pipes delivering the brine, which kept the tunnel air-conditioned during a sweltering Miami summer.

Q. Trucks carrying dangerous loads like explosives or toxic chemicals are banned from the tunnel. But how will the operators know if some moron mistakenly drives his truck full of methane into the tunnel?

“We don’t know,” says Hodgkins, just as there’s no way to detect a truck loaded with dynamite pulling up in front of the White House. “We have plans to respond and construction designs (our segments can withstand an explosive blast) to minimize impact ... . But nothing is moron- or terrorist-proof.”