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Fort Lauderdale doubles down on support for controversial New River tunnel

Man stands on stage speaking at a podium
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City of Fort Lauderdale Facebook Page
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis gives his 2023 State of the City address flanked by commission members and executive staff at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday October, 4 2023

Fort Lauderdale commissioners doubled down on their support for a tunnel to get trains across the New River, setting up another chapter of the feud with Broward County commissioners.

The city’s Transportation & Mobility Director Ben Rogers presented the city’s outlook on the long-delayed project Tuesday during a commission conference meeting.

The current drawbridge needs to be replaced to handle the increase in traffic from Brightline, the Florida East Coast Railway and Broward County’s long-awaited commuter rail. The transit project — which plans to link Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties through local stops using the Brightline tracks — is poised to transform the way South Floridians travel, if it can cross the New River.

Broward County commissioners want a bridge, preferably one tall enough for boats to pass under without having to wait for it to be raised. But the city, led by Mayor Dean Trantalis, wants a tunnel — something multiple studies have reported would cost billions of dollars to build and maintain.

Since 2020, the city has spent about $363,000 on studies comparing the cost and impact of a tunnel and a bridge, according to the presentation. That’s not including a $750,000 study from the Florida Department of Transportation, which the city didn’t pay for.

The city received almost $1 million from a federal grant last month and they’ll use it to again study the impact of a tunnel. This study will include impacts to nearby property, the environment and the economic development of the downtown area, which the train passes through.

Flier shows how the city plans to spend almost a million dollars in federal grant money to study a tunnel under the New River.
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City of Fort Lauderdale
Flier shows how the city plans to spend almost a million dollars in federal grant money to study a tunnel under the New River.

The lowest estimate for a tunnel so far has been $1.6 billion and the highest over $3 billion, while the estimates for a bridge are in the hundreds of millions.

READ MORE: Reports on Fort Lauderdale flood show heroism, weaknesses as city ramps up infrastructure projects

Trantalis said the county’s commuter rail was something “imposed on us as a regional undertaking,” and questioned during Tuesday's meeting how the project would help residents of Fort Lauderdale.

Some experts told the commissioners that a tunnel has twice the lifespan of a bridge — about 150 years — though the city faces increased flooding and it is yet to be seen how that will be factored into the tunnel discussion.

In April, when the city was inundated with more than 25 inches of rain during an historic storm, the city’s only tunnel under Las Olas Boulevard flooded. The extreme rainfall was rare, but experts including city officials say residents should expect to see heavy rainfalls more frequently.

A tunnel would allow marine traffic to flow unencumbered on the New River, a big benefit for the marine industry that is one of the county's largest sources of revenue. It is unclear to commissioners if they can do away with the current bridge that freight trains use. Commissioner John Herbst said the FECR, who operates those trains does not want to travel underground.

A tunnel would also be quieter and less intrusive to communities around the tracks.

A bridge would be much cheaper, according to studies done by several transit consulting groups. There's also debate on the feasibility of drilling below the New River without affecting the surrounding areas that are home massive apartment and condo buildings.

The city will meet with authors of some of the studies — including those from the Whitehouse group, who the mayor lambasted recentlyfor their high estimate of what a tunnel would cost. City commissioners then hope to meet with county commissioners to try and settle on a "Locally Preferred Alternative" crossing.

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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