Like many things these days, it all started with a tweet. In January 2021, eccentric entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted a video of battery cell production jobs in Texas and Berlin, inviting the public to be a part of a “sustainable energy future”. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez tweeted that he “couldn’t agree more” and invited the space cowboy to City Hall to discuss solutions.
— Tesla (@Tesla) January 17, 2021
Then Musk shared that he had spoken to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis the previous week about how the solution to Florida and Miami traffic troubles is tunnels — if they wanted in, “we will do it.”
Suarez called it a “no brainer.” Broward County’s leadership joined the chat; so did Fort Lauderdale’s. One month later, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis was in Las Vegas touring Musk’s Boring Co.’s construction on the Loop, a 28-mile circular the company says will cut down travel time from the convention center to the Mandalay Bay casino from 30 minutes to just three. The mayor was inspired to bring the idea back home, selling it as a way to cut down on travel from downtown to the beach – and perhaps beyond.
It’s all a part of the transportation puzzle as leaders try to figure out how to manage a never-ending boom in population, business and construction in Fort Lauderdale and beyond. Streets that were once easily navigable have become parking lots, and there are only plans for more people and their cars to arrive in the next decade. Meanwhile, away from Musk and Trantalis’ tunnel talk, a different tunnel debate rages. South Florida’s growing rail travel options are hindered by the outdated rail drawbridge over the New River – but possible solutions have the city potentially at odds with the county and state.
The tunnel dreamed up by Musk’s Boring Co. is no ordinary tunnel—Musk doesn’t do ordinary, after all. Instead of travelers driving back and forth under the New River, they would hop into a self-driving Tesla and be taken through the Las Olas Loop at 50 miles per hour, one of hundreds of trips per hour.
“We saw what they could do, talked about the cost in generalities, and then we encouraged them to present to us an unsolicited proposal,” Trantalis says. “I think we’re pretty much tapped out on these roadways; we cannot do anything more than what we’ve been able to accomplish so far.”
In the 29-page unsolicited proposal, the Boring Co. went a step further, showing a map of how the Loop could be expanded to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, The Galleria mall, Port Everglades, DRV PNK Stadium and more.
“We see this as a first leg or a prototype of what the possibilities are with regard to tunneling, and we’re using the Las Vegas model as a way to consider what the possibilities are here in Fort Lauderdale,” Trantalis says. “So, once we complete that first leg, we hope that the county now will see it as a possible alternative to some of the surface approaches they are considering to an underground approach.”
There’s similar optimism – in Fort Lauderdale City Hall, anyway – for a rail tunnel. The Florida Department of Transportation has proposed four different options for updated rail passage across the river: three are bridges; one is a tunnel. Proponents of the tunnel say a bridge would be an ugly, community-dividing eyesore through central areas that are increasingly popular to live in; those on the side of bridges say that bridges are a more cost effective and realistic solution in Florida.
Whether they carry Teslas or trains, Trantalis is steadfastly in Team Tunnel.
“I think tunnel technology is going to be the future of Fort Lauderdale,” he says.
When it comes to rail, money has been one of the biggest arguments in the tunnel versus bridge conversation. Originally, FDOT engineers estimated that the cost of building a tunnel would be almost $4 billion; recently, they reevaluated and lowered the cost to $1.8 billion. However, city leadership is confident that the price would be even lower than that.
But a bridge would still be cheaper. It would have a price tag ranging between $240 and $452 million, depending on the type.
“The low-level and mid-level bridge options are bascule bridges (drawbridges),” says Scott Wyman, Trantalis’ chief of staff. “The high-level bridge is solid. It’s allegedly high enough that all boat traffic can go under it without being a drawbridge.”
Even so, Fort Lauderdale leadership does not want a bridge. The plans show bridges up to three miles long and 80 feet high, which would “bisect Fort Lauderdale’s downtown and create undue blight,” according to a resolution unanimously passed by the city commission in January.
The Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority also backs a rail tunnel. During a January board meeting, the DDA showed its support for the mayor and a tunnel, as it eliminates noise and aesthetic issues, and it doesn’t separate communities. While the county and state say they are indifferent to the plans as they evaluate them, DDA president and CEO Jenni Morejon and others have read between the lines.
“It’s been pretty clear from our perspective at the DDA…that the push has not been for a tunnel,” she says, citing the difference in cost between the projects. “You really get the sense there’s not a big desire or appetite from the county and FDOT partners to move forward with the tunnel.”
FDOT is officially staying neutral at this part of the process; FDOT literature lists pros and cons of each. According to FDOT, 90% of boats would be able to pass under the lowest bridge when its down. (That rises to 99% for the taller drawbridge, according to FDOT.) It also lists challenges such as passenger trains remaining at-grade across Broward Boulevard with the lowest bridge, a required reconstruction of the Brightline station for all other options, and street closures of SW 15th Street and NE 5th Terrace at Sunrise Boulevard for the tunnel.
It’s all a part of growing pains for a city built in the 20th century. Like many other cities in the Sun Belt, Fort Lauderdale came up in the time of the car. Its infrastructure is young, public transportation was not a priority, the streets are narrow, and it doesn’t have hundreds of years of development in its history like other cities. “We’re having to create a new right-of-way where it didn’t otherwise exist before,” Morejon says.
In the ’60s and ’70s, downtown was solely a business district. In the ’80s, the city’s image as a spring break hotspot was at its peak. Today, it’s a tourist destination for college students, convention attendees, families and discerning travelers who want a 5-star experience on the water. Morejon sees similarities to the evolution of Las Vegas; other cities she considers aspirational for Fort Lauderdale in terms of growth include Dallas, Nashville and Charlotte.
By emphasizing more density in the downtown core and a variety of transportation options, both visitors and locals won’t have to travel as far to get where they need to be, and may even be able to forgo a car altogether.
“Transportation and connectivity is an ecosystem,” Morejon says. “It has to be made up of all different sizes, spaces and distances but at the end of the day it has to be efficient, it has to be predictable and quite frankly, it has to be an experience.”
No one knows this better than the team at Brightline. The privately owned rail company currently operates three stations in South Florida—West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami—and aims to begin service to Orlando in 2023. A groundbreaking ceremony took place at the site of a future Boca Raton station in January and an Aventura stop is on the horizon. When the stations are all complete, the company projects 9.5 million riders per year.
“Our ultimate business model is to connect city pairs that are too close to fly and too far to drive,” says Ben Porritt, Brightline’s senior vice president. “Once people try the train for the first time, the idea of getting back in their car is the last thing they even think of.”
While pricier than Tri-Rail and similar public commuter rail systems, Brightline sells itself as an enjoyable alternative with a colorful aesthetic, food and drink carts, comfortable modern stations and its newest service, a free door-to-door Tesla rideshare service operating within five miles of stations. When talking about what they offer, Brightline leaders talk about connectivity.
A big part of that connectivity, however, would not involve Brightline trains. As an inter-city rail service, Brightline aims to take passengers quickly between a limited number of stops; there are no stated plans for additional South Florida Brightline stations beyond Boca and Aventura. Commuter rail lines, like Tri-Rail, exist to travel more slowly but with more stops. And that’s where the proposed Coastal Link Commuter Rail project comes in.
Coastal Link commuter trains would share the Florida East Coast tracks with Brightline and run directly through South Florida’s major downtowns, as opposed to Tri-Rail, which runs along the interstate-hugging line west of most downtowns. Potential Broward stops include Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Oakland Park, where a spot near Funky Buddha Brewery has been identified. (Tri-Rail plans to soon run trains into Brightline’s downtown Miami station; however that would involve Tri-Rail trains transferring onto the FEC line in north Miami-Dade.)
But for that to happen, a route across the New River that doesn’t bring boat traffic to a halt needs to be found. The New River is the Fort Lauderdale boating and yachting industry’s Main Street to the marinas and assorted boating-related businesses farther west. Before Brightline began running, rail and boating industry leaders worked to make sure the increased rail traffic would disrupt river traffic as little as possible. According to the people behind the projects, another massive increase in the time the current rail bridge has to be down just won’t work. Whether it’s a taller bridge or a tunnel, something else needs to be there.
Once that comes together and commuter trains are also stopping at Brightline stations, Porritt sees an opportunity to help residents and visitors get around the region. Should someone want to get to Orlando from a city not serviced by the Brightline, they could take Tri-Rail to their nearest Brightline station, then transfer to the inter-city train and onto the Magic Kingdom. “For public transportation and the Brightline to really be successful for the consumer,” he says, “they all have to connect.”
Boring Before It Was Cool
The bridge versus tunnel dilemma is an age-old debate in Fort Lauderdale. When the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel in downtown was first proposed, it was seen as a radical, nonsensical idea—now, we can’t live without it.
“I think that people forget that we already have a tunnel in Fort Lauderdale,” Trantalis says.
Before the tunnel—then simply called the New River Tunnel—was completed in 1960, drivers crossed the river with a bridge. In the post-war boom in the late 1940s, Fort Lauderdale leaders knew they had to think fast to be able to handle the exponential growth. One faction was in favor of expanding the bridge’s lanes; another wanted to go underground.
“The city and the commission and the county and the state were scrambling to determine, ‘How can we relieve the congestion of all these people coming down and all these people living here?’” says Ellery Andrews, deputy director at History Fort Lauderdale.
And just like now, there were fierce opponents to the tunnel using the same arguments. In a letter to the editor, resident Belle V. Follansbee fumed: “If we are going to have a tunnel under a 50-foot span of water, why not go whole hog and have tunnels under the Federal hwy. bridge; same at Andrews ave. bridge; and any other little bridges we can think of. It would make just as much sense. Why be pikers? Instead of a few paltry millions, let’s go into billions!”
Even Ivy Stranahan, the unofficial “mother of Fort Lauderdale,” was opposed to the bridge, particularly because her riverfront home would sit on top of the tunnel.
“Everyone had a very big opinion about it,” Andrews says. “You weren’t building tunnels in Florida, you weren’t building tunnels in Fort Lauderdale; there’s just a high water table and it didn’t seem plausible.”
On Dec. 11, 1950, the Fort Lauderdale Daily News announced that the tunnel project was approved and backed by the commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads, the predecessor to the Federal Highway Administration. Using new technology and implementing safety measures, the tunnel was completed in 1960, the first in the state. A “Tunnel Topics” piece in the Daily News quoted an engineer who said the project was “one of the most difficult jobs he ever tackled.” It was renamed the Henry E. Kinney Tunnel in 1986 in honor of the man who had been editor of the Miami Herald’s Fort Lauderdale/Broward bureau while the debate was raging. During his tenure at the paper, Kinney wrote columns advocating for the tunnel.
The project was $15 million – $173.5 million in today’s money. Sixty-two years later, “it just seems like it should have always been there,” Andrews says.
“It’s the same conversation we’re going to keep having as long as there is a population and development boom. You’re always going to have to have conversations about where is everyone going and how are they getting there?”