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Tunnel? Bridge? Fort Lauderdale mayor at odds with Broward commissioners over New River Crossing

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis tells the crowd Fort Lauderdale has much to be proud of during his State of the City speech Oct. 4, 2023 at The Parker.
John McCall
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis tells the crowd Fort Lauderdale has much to be proud of during his State of the City speech Oct. 4, 2023 at The Parker.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis boasted this week about a nearly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study construction of a tunnel under the New River — even though Broward County commissioners favor a bridge because it's less expensive.

In touting the $974,000 federal grant on Thursday, the mayor wrote on "X": “It's all about improving safety, keeping our communities connected, easing traffic flow, and improving navigability not just in our our downtown core, but for the entire region.”

The grant is only the latest chapter in a long running debate between Broward's biggest city and county commissioners in deciding the future of the New River Crossing.

Broward County commissioners overwhelmingly opposed the tunnel idea at an Oct. 10 meeting after reviewing a study of the cost of a tunnel vs. a bridge.

The study prepared by the Whitehouse Group, a transportation consulting firm, reported that a bridge —not a tunnel — was the most cost-effective way for trains to cross the city's New River.

READ MORE: Broward commissioners clash with Fort Lauderdale mayor over New River Crossing

The study found that a tunnel would cost an estimated $3 billion to build and another estimated $3.3 billion to maintain. Fort Lauderdale's budget for the current fiscal year is just $1 billion.

Trantalis, who has long pushed for a tunnel, called the study “slipshod.”

In a letter to commissioners after the Oct. 10 meeting, Trantalis wrote that the study “fails to provide anything resembling a complete picture of the overall project.”

He later wrote commissioners Oct. 16 that the study failed to consider the latest tunnel building technology that he said is less expensive and faster.

For county commissioners, the study only confirmed what they had been saying for years: a bridge is the only feasible answer.

"We don't have the money in this county to spend billions of dollars to build a tunnel," said Commissioner Michael Udine.

The Whitehouse group did not respond to emails and phone messages left by WLRN, butWhitehouse Group president Todd Brauer said city and county staff worked in "a collaborative effort" to do its study.

The county and city have been back and forth about the best solution for a new way to cross the river for years.

The county is currently negotiating a deal with Brightline and its affiliates to use train tracks for a commuter rail that is expected to be the spine of a massive mobility project throughout South Florida.

Buttigieg's Brightline visit

A man in a suit steps off a train as he smiles at someone he is about to shake hands with.
Julia Cooper/WLRN
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigeig steps off the Brightline train in Fort Lauderdale and moves to shake hands with Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2022.

Even U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who was in South Florida this week to tout the Biden administration's infrastructure investments, heard from city and county officials about the merits of a tunnel versus a bridge.

Whether a bridge or tunnel is built, federal dollars will play a key role in funding any New River Crossing construction.

Fort Lauderdale's mayor has long been a proponent of tunneling under the New River to allow trains to run underneath and marine traffic to float unencumbered above.

“The tunnel remains the only viable answer,” Trantalis said earlier this month in his State of the City address.

In making his argument for a tunnel, Trantalis claims the Whitehouse Group study failed to consult the marine industry, which generates billions of dollars for the county. The increase in train traffic — the mayor estimates 200 trips a day — will have an effect on the boats and yachts that pass the crossing.

"Brightline trains pass through the New River Crossing 36 times a day. Brightline intends to increase this passage to almost... 80 crossings. Commuter Rail, once operational, will have more than 100 passes through the New River Crossing, in addition to the freight train passes," the letter read.

Currently trains cross a drawbridge constructed in 1978 that defaults to its up position when not in use, allowing boats to float by.

Chart showing costs of different crossing options.
Broward County
Chart showing costs of different crossing options.

Cost estimates

The estimate for a tunnel, according to the Whitehouse Group study, was $3 billion to build and $3.3 billion to maintain over the next 50 years — a figure that Brauer said is affected by inflation.

Brauer said he was given a separate study from Fort Lauderdale that quoted the price for a tunnel around $1.8 billion but that number would likely be higher because of inflation and increased prices for concrete and steel.

READ MORE: U.S: Transportation secretary touts Biden's infrastructure investments on South Florida trip

Among the options are two drawbridges and a fixed bridge.

The low-level drawbridge would be 25 feet above the water and accommodate 90% of boats that pass under without having to open to let them through. The next option is a 56.5 foot bridge that accommodates 99% of boats.

The last option for bridges is an 80-foot bridge that would not open and close because it could accommodate all of the marine traffic below. It would be expected to cost $585 million to build and $55 million to maintain over the next 50 years.

The delays in a decision are affecting Broward cities to the north of the river who are developing their own projects based on the commuter rail system.

“The city of Oakland Park is building their city hall, they're building affordable housing based around their station. Right now," said Broward mayor Lamar Fisher. "City of Pompano Beach is doing the same thing. City of Deerfield Beach is doing the same thing.”

The county said that they will be the ones in charge of determining the best alternative to the crossing, because they are the ones operating the commuter rail line.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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