Thursday, December 10, 2009

Scoop: County changes plan for sewer tunnel under Government Cut

They do policy turns on a dime at County Hall:

• One day it was OK for the top aide to Mayor Carlos Alvarez to do private work in Panama while on the county dime, next day those trips to Panama were off.

• Last week Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department sent top officials and consultants to Miami Beach to explain a $197 million tunnel under Government Cut, this week the project is off. Have we saved a lot more than a dime?

• What next?

Why so nervous? That’s the next question. Something about that recall petition against Alvarez?

And the question from Frank Del Vecchio, the prime watchdog of Miami Beach city government, was what’s with “the disappearing act with the $197 million port utility tunnel gambit.”

Those of you who know anything about this either were at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club meeting on Dec. 1 or you read it on this blog a week ago. This is still a scoop for me. The Miami Herald may have bigger fish to worry about than $197 million of taxpayers’ money, I guess.

The short summary of this project as of last week was that the Water and Sewer Department had to relocate a sewer line under Government Cut because the waterway must be dredged deeper to accommodate much bigger cargo ships in the Port of Miami. The existing 54-inch pipe was to be replaced by boring a big tunnel 80 feet down to carry a sewer line and other utility pipes from Miami Beach under Government Cut, under Fisher Island and to the county sewage treatment plant on Virginia Key.

If they haven’t taken down the project Web site, you can see it at

Lotta work involved. Projected at $197 million. The 50-60 people at the Miami Beach breakfast meeting last week objected pretty unanimously against the likely plan to pay for it out of county-wide water and sewer bills, rather than for the Port of Miami – the beneficiary of bigger cargo ships – to pay for it out of its increased revenue, in the billions annually.

Miami Beach city officials started asking questions, based on citizen concerns cranked out from the committee of residents and experts mobilized by Del Vecchio and others. Noise, smell, cost, traffic, easements, environmental impact.

Wednesday morning I was surprised to have an email roll in from the Water and Sewer Department, addressed to the Miami Beach city manager’s office, with copies to lots of people on the residents’ committee, of which I’m a member. Along with the emailed reversal by County Hall came a long thread of emails between Miami Beach and the county Water and Sewer Department.

The new plan scuttles the big, bored tunnel and somehow will do the work from barges in Government Cut. That’s a busy place to have barges (plural) contending in the narrow waterway with cruise ships and cargo ships, not to speak of my 26-foot sailboat and other pleasure craft. And I wonder about the environmental impact. One of the pluses of the deep tunnel was that it wouldn’t disturb marine life at all, since it would be bored well below the bottom of Government Cut.

The email from Eduardo A. Vega, an assistant director in Water and Sewer, said it would still be a challenge to get the work done by August 2012.

“While this approach still represents a significant challenge in terms of the schedule, we feel that the overall risks of delay are significantly reduced with this less complex alternative,” Vega’s email said.

Frank Del Vecchio has a dim view of the moral atmosphere in our home county. Here’s what he said in an email to me:

This is evidence of the RICOH-type syndicate consisting of a sort of Adam Smith "invisible hand" where all the players know they will gain but don't actually have to sit in a smoke-filled room to cook up the scheme. Miami-Dade County is the equivalent of a smoke-filled room of politicos, government agency employees, consultants, contractors, lawyers, lobbyists all profiting off the public: taxes, bonding, government power.

That’s pretty tricky thinking, Frank. Miami-Dade is like a smoke-filled room. Well, now it’s our job to help clean it up.

Water and Sewer, by the way, still plans to keep the tunnel project on the drawing boards – just way off in the future when it may be needed.

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