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Tunnel supporters dealt a blow as Fort Lauderdale passes New River crossing resolution

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.

With a February deadline to apply for federal funding approaching, proponents of a tunnel for trains to pass under Fort Lauderdale’s New River have been dealt another blow.

Hours after a new consultant report estimated a tunnel would cost up to $1.34 billion — the lowest estimate yet — city commissioners voted 3 to 2 in favor of a resolution that favored a tunnel but would accept a bridge.

The city has long seen a tunnel as their preferred New River crossing solution for a drastic increase in train traffic in the coming years. The current crossing can't handle that volume and would delay vital marine traffic. But Broward County has stood firm on their desire for a new bridge.

The resolution that passed Tuesday night reads:
"The City of Fort Lauderdale Commission continues to affirm a tunnel as the locally preferred alternative... However... if after collaboration with the Broward County it is determined that a tunnel is not a feasible option then we will support the Broward County in advancing a mid-level bascule drawbridge as an alternative."

Commissioners Warren Sturman, Pamela Beasley-Pittman and John Herbst voted in favor of the resolution on Tuesday.

Mayor Dean Trantalis — the fiercest supporter of a tunnel — called the vote the "epitaph" to Downtown Fort Lauderdale. Commissioner Steve Glassman, the other dissenting vote, compared the resolution to "raising a white flag" to the county. The pair were opposed to the tail-end of the resolution that stated that the city would accept a bridge as an option if a tunnel is not feasible.

"You are showing that you are not representing your residents. You are showing that you're saying to your constituents, 'Screw you. I don't care. I'm going to ruin your downtown,'" Glassman said to Sturman after the vote.

But Beasly-Pittman, who voted for the resolution, said: "I believe this is an opportunity to collaborate and move forward."

Fort Lauderdale commissioners had the wind knocked out of their sails earlier this month at a joint-meeting with Broward County commissioners, as county leaders shot down a tunnel in favor of a less expensive bridge.

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

"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.”

County commissioners will have the final say in how trains, including Brightline and the county's proposed commuter rail system, will cross the New River. They have long favored the less-expensive bridge that will cut through Downtown Fort Lauderdale. The city being on-board with their preferred option will make getting federal funding easier.

Still, during Tuesday’s meeting, BDO USA, a consultant hired by the city to look into the costs of a tunnel, shared preliminary findings with Fort Lauderdale commissioners.

Those findings included a shorter tunnel that would cost up to $1.34 billion and take up to 8 years to plan and build. That estimate is billions of dollars cheaper than the estimate from a joint-study that the city and county paid for earlier this year.

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

“A bridge would be a scar on this community, a gash that will never heal,” former assistant Broward County administrator Alan Cohen said. He was one of 20 public speakers at the county meeting. None favored a bridge.

The other benefit of the BDO plan is that the county would not have to use eminent domain to take land away from private owners, something a bridge would not require.

Fort Lauderdale commissioner John Herbst cast doubt on the numbers provided by BDO.

“This is inconsistent with the other four reports that we've had so far, and I'm not saying you're wrong,” he said. “What I'm saying is I'm skeptical when I see something that is substantially different … from everything else we've been looking at for the last four years.”

The resolution passed by city commissioners Tuesday is only symbolic but signals to the county that their largest and most influential city is still in opposition to a bridge.

The New River Crossing

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.

But when an upcoming commuter rail system is operational, officials said they expect as many as 100 trips a day, which would delay marine traffic along the river going through downtown Fort Lauderdale and towards the marine.

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. This cost, according to critics like Trantalis, does not include the money the county would need to spend buying land from people to clear the way for the project.

Costs for a tunnel have been much higher, closer to $3 billion — until the new, disputed estimate was introduced this week.

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.

City vs. County 

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.

Fort Lauderdale commissioners now have a small window to work to try to convince the county to consider a tunnel – again. February is the deadline for the county to apply for federal grants to help fund the project.

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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