For those of us who drive in downtown Fort Lauderdale these days, the question is, “When will they get this tunnel fixed?”
But we should be glad we even have one lane open.
The reason I say this lies in our past. The New River Tunnel was very close to never having been built. Let’s revisit a little history, which I first wrote about in this space six years ago.
In the 1950s there was a furious battle between proponents and those against the project. Proponents included those frustrated by endless waits at the city’s many drawbridges. They wanted the tunnel to replace a bridge built in 1926.
Yes, it is a little irritating for those of us who slog through long lines in single lanes today – while they make much-needed repairs and safety updates, as well as constructing a snazzy new “plaza” atop the tunnel – yet consider the alternative. That would be risking the infuriating bridge openings that always seem to come when you’re in a rush to get somewhere.
It was much worse before the tunnel was built. Twenty-five years after the two-lane drawbridge was erected, the city had expanded exponentially, and the bridge was woefully inadequate. Accounts from the time described traffic so bad that it took as long as 45 minutes just to cross the bridge, causing backups on both sides. It could take almost an hour to go just six blocks.
The question then was: build a new bridge or build Florida’s first tunnel? Then-Gov. LeRoy Collins, a tunnel proponent, said it was a solution for “the worst traffic jam in the state.”
Opponents to the tunnel were many. “It will become a carbon-monoxide death trap,” said some. “In summer, our booming thunderstorms will flood the tunnel and trap cars in it.” Another argument: “Who’ll prevent highwaymen from robbing people in the tunnel?”
“This is an extravagant monstrosity,” howled the publisher of the Fort Lauderdale News, R. H. Gore. He argued that bridges cost three times less to build, which was true.
“One sure way to help this community die on its feet is to tax our people $1,000,000 merely for the purpose of speeding transients through a super-duper $5,000,000 luxury facility on an already outmoded highway,” read a 1956 Fort Lauderdale News editorial.
The million dollars were the city’s right-of-way costs, to be paid by local gas taxes. The remainder was to be paid through a state fund. The idea of the tunnel, this editorial concluded, was “like putting a Cadillac engine in a Model T Ford. And what sensible person would buy that proposition?”
The Miami Herald would buy that proposition. Broward editor Henry E. Kinney led the fight, which went on for years. Finally, in a 1958 referendum, citizens voted for the tunnel, 7,008 to 6,401. A mere 607 voters separated the sides.
The tunnel carrying Federal Highway under Las Olas Boulevard and the New River was completed on Dec. 9, 1960. Kinney’s role was recognized in 1986, when his name was attached to the tunnel. By then citizens knew how farsighted this vision was.
At the time of the tunnel’s christening in 1960, the state’s cost had risen to $6.5 million and the Virginia-based firm that built it complained that it lost $750,000 on the project.
Obviously, building the tunnel under the New River was an engineering challenge. News accounts at the time pointed out that laborers had to dig through the river – not under it. There were 1,000 workers in all, with huge pumps running 24/7 to keep water out of their way. The tunnel is anchored underneath by 3,000 reinforcing rods dropped 10 feet into the limestone.
If you have ever wondered, giant fans push fresh air into the passageway and push the exhaust out. These and other features are being updated in the current construction. Also improved will be the drains and pipes that keep the surface dry. Three separate sources of electrical power run everything including the lights, and there is a 500,000-watt diesel generator for backup.
Yes, the wait is a pain, but soon that Cadillac of a tunnel should be running on all cylinders.