Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A tale of tolls and tunnels and water bills

When they calculate inflation, are tolls part of the basket? Why do I doubt it? Inflation stays low but the tolls are ever higher. Not long ago I drove the Venetian Causeway to Miami Beach and was stunned to see it was $1.50 for that short passage. Hey, I could drive miles north and cross the Broad Causeway for a dollar (was 50 cents couple years ago).

Some years ago they thought of removing a tollbooth on the 836 Dolphin Expressway where they were collecting 50 cents but instead kept the booth and raised the toll. Used to be that the Sunpass transponder, introduced about the time they didn’t eliminate that tollbooth, would beep at each toll, and the little window would indicate the toll paid. Now that’s gone. They don’t want you to know.

These days I-95, which we built with our tax dollars decades ago, is a partial tollway through the busy heart of Miami, and we can pay for it again. I-95’s new express lanes northbound have been tolled for some time, though drivers on intersecting I-195 and SR-112 continue to suffer delays due to construction on express lanes. Wouldn’t it be humane to wait until the end of construction delays to start charging tolls? Sorry, humane doesn’t pay the bills, buddy.

The ever-rising number of fabulously expensive message boards that jangle drivers’ nerves are warning of new delays as lane dividers are installed on southbound I-95 this week. Hurrah! They can start charging tolls there, too!

All this is by way of introduction to a complaint about how big business and the government will laugh behind their hands while we pay for a $200 million tunnel that will benefit ship traffic and the Port of Miami.

The ships are the end-users of this tunnel, as we drivers are the users of the tolled highways. But they aren’t being asked to pay for it. We are. And who’s this we? Everyone who turns on the faucet or flushes a toilet in Miami-Dade County. We will pay through our water and sewer bills.

This has been becoming clear through the past weeks as Miami Beach learned of a tunnel that’s going to be built at flank speed to carry sewage from Miami Beach to the Miami-Dade County sewage treatment plant on Virginia Key.

But – those with memories will declare – there’s already such a pipeline! Built around 1980. Punctured in 2000 by a contractor, resulting in stinky beaches for weeks. Yes, but it’s not deep enough. The shipping channel called Government Cut is going to be dredged to permit much larger freighters to reach the Port of Miami, and the new depth means the old pipeline must be pulled out and scrapped, and a new tunnel will be drilled at a depth of 80 feet – well below the bottom of the new channel – and carry water and other stuff as well as sewage.

Well, I hope they’ll put the sewage on the bottom of the tunnel.

The Miami Beach Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club, one of God’s gifts to the civic-minded, heard detail on the project and asked a lot of questions this week, with Frank Del Vecchio at his watchdog best and good help from city Commissioner Jerry Libbin and others. Describing the project was Norman Anderson, lead consultant with AECOM, which you can look up here.  It’s a big engineering and construction company, one of the largest in the country. With Anderson were officials from the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department.

One of the officials said the tunnel project – and who should pay for it – was like what might happen when a road has to be rebuilt and Water and Sewer is liable to pay for revamping its pipes under the road. OK, but this didn’t fly well with the crowd paying water bills already and living on measly fixed incomes.

Del Veccio said the existing pipeline still had decades of useful life, so financing should fall more on the Port of Miami, the beneficiary of bigger freighters, than on those paying water bills. He suggested the port contracts needed to be renegotiated and reminded the officials that the county commission’s credibility was low following the decision to build the Marlins Stadium.

Pressed by Commissioner Libbin, Anderson said the Port of Miami estimates that the county will reap $18 billion a year in economic benefit from bigger ships. The huge figure stunned the crowd, especially because he first said it would be $18 billion of increased revenue. For what? The port? Then he corrected it to overall economic benefit. But still it seemed that the port would have plenty of new money to pick up the cost of the tunnel project.

Count on this: This will become an issue before the County Commission. They are happy enough to let fees and tolls be increased on the average member of the public to pay for services. But a ship or a shipping company isn’t presently expecting to be asked to pay for a superhighway to the Port of Miami.

Well, I’m asking and I’m not the only one. If I can pay tolls to use a highway I paid for with taxes, then a company that the Supreme Court thinks is like a human being with freedom of speech can pay tolls and tunnel costs, too.

And why bigger ships? Because the Panama Canal is being expanded and huge ships that carry 13,000 cargo containers will be able to pass. Currently, the canal can handle ships carrying 5,000 containers. The expansion is to be finished in 2014. They probably are laying keels now for the huge ships. Government Cut can't be dredged until the sewer tunnel is down there at 80 feet doing its job. Better get started on the tunnel, eh?

End note: After Tuesday’s breakfast meeting I drove down to South Pointe to see the “triangle” of open land amid condo towers and townhouses, close to Government Cut. An access shaft will be sunk there to meet the tunnel 80 feet down. It’s at Jefferson Avenue and Commerce Street. I took these snips of video, and then along came a rangy old guy who looked local. I asked him if he knew what this circle-like arrangement of concrete slabs in the triangle was for.

“Oh, they were the base of the old water tower here. I helped take it down years ago. Forty-six years I’ve been here,” he said.

And wow, isn’t that a pretty blue Mustang parked there.


helene said...

Both cruise and cargo are huge economic engines for Miami-Dade and, unlike other revenue streams with roots in the community, the ships have the luxury of just streaming by Miami and taking their business to other ports. It is in the best interest of the community to attract and retain their business... up to a point.

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of NE 5th St and Biscayne on Monday or Friday morning will agree that something needs to be done to get the port truck traffic off crowded downtown streets.

I participated in transportation meetings several years ago where the port tunnel was discussed. Miami engineers noted that the grade of the tunnel was too steep, and that the rock was too porous to get a good seal. Each time a potential problem was raised, a representative of FDOT from Tallahassee simply responded that the governor wanted this tunnel to get on track before he (Jeb Bush) left office. I am sure they have since identified ways to deal with the grade and the porous rock, but those are still certain to be challenges and possible sources of cost overruns.

To me the travesty of the tunnel is that it will spend a projected $2 billion for all tunnel-related improvements and the end result will be that we are just making it easier to put more gas-guzzling trucks on the highway. If we are going to sink $2 billion in something, why not spend it on something green like rail infrastructure that will get trucks off the downtown roads and keep them off I-95 as well? We need to rethink how we do business and how we move cargo. A port tunnel, when and if it finally gets done, will only move a finite number of trucks. Rail infrastructure allows opportunities for future expansion.

Given the escalating costs for the Marlins stadium, the Performing Arts Center and the Big Dig in Boston, we can expect the tunnel to cost more than anticipated.

In recent years, cargo at the Port of Miami has declined following the boom years of hurricane repairs and the construction boom. Broward is luring away cargo as are other Florida ports up the coast. The on-port disruption of this major construction could tip the scales to drive those cargo vessels to competing ports. Then when all this money is spent and the tunnel is finished, what will the Port of Miami really have to show? What will we have to offer that will keep the cargo coming to Miami? Will enough cargo come to Miami to justify the tunnel?

Supposedly 85% of the cargo that comes thru the Port of Miami stays in the local area, but that statistic is from the boom days when granite, roof tiles, lumber and other building materials poured in to satisfy a hungry construction industry.

There used to be a train that moved cargo on/off the Port in the wee morning hours. New condos along the track now makes the current train infrastructure less attractive, but with $2 billion to work with, I bet there is a rail solution that would move the cargo to/from an off port distribution center and onto rail or trucks.

At present there is minimal rail infrastructure to connect South Florida with points north but with our highways reaching capacity and with the need to reduce greenhouse gasses, the pressure to invest in rail can only grow.

I believe our leaders are literally burying their heads in the sand by investing in a tunnel instead of seeking innovative transportation solutions.

Larry Thorson said...

Helene gave us a comprehensive comment on a bigger topic than Miami Beach and its sewage tunnel. All we ever heard about the rail alternative to the port truck tunnel was that the political level didn't want rail, it wanted trucks. Too bad that no one is talking about revisiting this faulty decision before they do any digging

While downtown today for Art Basel I drove across a shiny rail track at about NW 1ST Avenue and 8th Street. The line goes east to the port and in the other direction to the wider world to the north. Put this on a trestle and the cargo containers, too, and problem solved. But we still gotta think about who pays for the sewage tunnel.