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Bridge emerges as preferred alternative for New River crossing at rare joint meeting

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis (left) sits with Broward County Mayor Nan Rich at a Dec. 5 joint-meeting on New River Crossing alternatives.
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Broward County Government
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis (left) sits with Broward County Mayor Nan Rich at a Dec. 5 joint-meeting on New River Crossing alternatives.

Broward County is counting on a commuter rail system — with multiple stops in densely populated areas — to be the centerpiece of their new PREMO transit project.

There’s just one issue yet to be resolved: How those trains will cross the New River, which splits downtown Fort Lauderdale in half.

The current New River Crossing is a low-hanging drawbridge. It rests in the up position when not in use by trains allowing boats to pass to and from the Fort Lauderdale Marina.

When the commuter rail system is operational, officials said they expect as many as 200 trips a day, which would delay marine traffic. A county official told WLRN that it could be lower, with only about 100 daily trips.

To accommodate the increase in train crossings, Broward County commissioners want to go with the less costly option: a new, higher bridge. Fort Lauderdale city commissioners want a less obtrusive but more costly tunnel.

County commissioners will have the final say and they may vote on the issue early next year.

Cost estimates for building a bridge are about $550 million, according to a joint-study on crossing alternatives. Costs for a tunnel are much higher, closer to $3 billion.

The county-city feud is delaying the project and costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the last five years, the county and city have spent over half a million dollars in studies regarding the crossing.

A yacht passes the current New River Crossing bridge which is in the up-position.
Gerard Albert III
A yacht passes the current New River Crossing bridge which is in the up-position.

The debate over a bridge versus a tunnel continued Tuesday at a rare joint meeting between city and county commissioners. And while commissioners remained civil, the discussions were tense.

Most of the meeting consisted of Mayor Dean Trantalis critiquing a joint-study that the city and county each paid $250,000 for.

Deadlines approaching

How trains will cross the New River isn’t a new problem. But with grant deadlines approaching, construction costs rising and a looming presidential election, county commissioners have to make a decision in order to secure funding.

And while the county is in charge of the project, the new crossing will cut through the biggest city in Broward. And the Fort Lauderdale mayor has stood in opposition to a bridge for years.

READ MORE: Fort Lauderdale doubles down on support for controversial New River tunnel

At a November meeting Trantalis responded to an Op-Ed published in the Sun Sentinel written by Broward County Administrator Monica Cepero. She refuted some of the mayor’s previous claims about a tunnel and reiterated that the ultimate decision was in the county’s hands, not the city’s.

"When I read that, I realized that the rug had been pulled out from under us," he said. 

It wasn’t the only time the mayor clashed with county commissioners over some of his arguments for a tunnel. Trantalis argues that a bridge would have negative consequences for Fort Lauderdale’s Black neighborhoods.

Robert McKinzie used to represent Fort Lauderdale’s western and historically Black neighborhoods on the city commission. Now he represents them on the county commission. He responded to the mayor's argument at this week’s meeting:

"The most offensive thing I've heard since the inception of this alternative is that bridges separate neighborhoods. Bridges don't separate neighborhoods. People do.  Economics do.  Not bridges," he said.

The current New River Crossing bridge in the down-position.
Gerard Albert III
The current New River Crossing bridge in the down-position.

The next crossing

The meeting ended with county commissioners unmoved by Mayor Trantalis’ arguments for a tunnel.

Although the decision will ultimately be in the hands of county commissioners, at least three of five Fort Lauderdale commissioners also said they would be open to a bridge because of the cost. They were Warren Sturman, Pamela Beasley-Pittman and John Herbst.

That left Trantalis visibly upset.

Supporters of a tunnel took another blow Tuesday when Phil Purcell, who heads the influential Marine Industries Association of South Florida, said that a bridge was a viable alternative.

"A 40-foot bridge will accommodate the majority of our industry," he told commissioners.

County commissioners previously voted for a resolution in favor of a bridge — and their minds weren’t changed at this week’s meeting. But they still need to make a final vote, as early as possibly February, and decide how tall they want to build it and how they’ll pay for it.

"We need to move ahead," said Broward County Mayor Nan Rich. "It is our project, and we need to move ahead with this, we can’t hold it up any longer.”

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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