FL: Great train debate: Fort Lauderdale not giving up fight for New River train tunnel

Nov. 10, 2023
In the urgent march to expand commuter rail, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County have been at odds over the best way to get Brightline’s high-speed passenger trains across the New River.

A lone voice spoke out this week against the idea that car-centric South Florida will ever embrace commuter rail.

“We are not New York City,” local activist Ted Inserra told Fort Lauderdale commissioners on Tuesday. “We are not a commuter rail community. That is not us. That is not our city. As much as you want us to be New York City, we are not New York City. (We) will stay in our cars forever before we get on a train.”

The commission was in the midst of an ongoing debate over whether it makes more sense to build a bridge or tunnel to get commuter trains over the New River without causing major backups for marine traffic.

“We can only do this once and we’ve got to do this right,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said.

In the urgent march to expand commuter rail, Fort Lauderdale and Broward County have been at odds over the best way to get Brightline’s high-speed passenger trains across the New River.

County commissioners prefer a bridge, the less expensive option at anywhere from $303 million to $572 million, depending on size.

Fort Lauderdale’s mayor has been championing a tunnel experts predict may cost as much as $3 billion. Trantalis questions that figure, arguing it’s an inflated estimate.

Brightline launched its high-speed passenger train service in 2018 with three stops serving Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach.

Tourism development officials throughout South Florida have sought to leverage the service ever since, promoting it as the key to a regional transportation system of the future as well as a trigger for even more construction projects near the tracks.

Five years later, Brightline has stations in Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, West Palm Beach and Orlando. Eventually, the hope is to have more than 200 trains a day ferrying people from place to place across the tri-county region.

Inserra is among those who worry the trains might be empty.

“I’ve lived 67 years on the west side of the tracks,” he told commissioners on Tuesday. “Bridge or tunnel? I say neither. I don’t think we need 80 more empty trains going up and down (the tracks).”

But with hordes of people moving to Florida, government officials say they have no choice but to move forward with plans for a regional transportation system that will get people out of their cars.

Commissioner John Herbst told Inserra he agrees that most people in South Florida don’t want to get out of their cars and take a train. But eventually, they may have to as density increases throughout Fort Lauderdale and the region.

“The state is one of the fastest growing in the country,” Herbst said. “We have to get people out of cars. We can’t study things to death. At some point, we need to move forward and get things done.”

Down the line, as prices increase, some folks who work in Fort Lauderdale might not be able to afford the rent to live there, Herbst said.

“We need to be able to move people back and forth,” he said. “We need to have a regional transportation option.”

Russ Klenet, a longtime lobbyist and chair of Broward Workshop’s Urban Corridor Committee, told Fort Lauderdale commissioners he’d met with five county commissioners on Monday, including Mayor Lamar Fisher, to discuss the importance of expanding commuter rail.

Klenet reassured Fort Lauderdale commissioners on Tuesday that county officials were willing to come to the table and work out a plan the city can live with.

“It’s not the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Klenet said.

“This is a generational project,” he added. “It impacts Dade County. It impacts Palm Beach County. And it impacts Broward County. We support you. We believe you are making a very important decision.”

After winning a $947,000 federal grant last month, Fort Lauderdale is planning to use the money to fund a new study on what it would cost to build a tunnel crossing vs. a bridge.

Over the years, several studies have been done by both the state Department of Transportation and outside consultants on the cost of both a bridge and tunnel crossing over the New River. And not everyone agrees.

Commissioners got an update on the latest estimates Tuesday.

In 2020, state transportation officials said a tunnel would cost $3.3 billion. A bridge would cost $134 million to $477 million, depending on the size. In 2021, they came back with a new estimate on what it might cost to build a tunnel, saying it would cost anywhere from $1.64 billion to $2.46 billion.

Another study put the cost of a tunnel at $1.7 billion to $2.7 billion. The $33,000 report, released in March 2023, was commissioned by Fort Lauderdale.

A study by the Whitehouse Group put the cost of a tunnel at $3 billion. The cost of the $500,000 report, released in August 2023, was split between the county and Fort Lauderdale.

Another report released in September 2023 disputes the cost estimates made by the state Department of Transportation and the Whitehouse Group, saying their numbers are inflated. Fort Lauderdale footed the bill for the $5,000 study.

Mary Fertig, a longtime activist, noted that taxpayers are the ones paying for all the studies. And ultimately, taxpayers will pay for a tunnel or maybe a bridge.

“Do I believe in commuter rail? Yes,” Fertig told the commission. “I also think you can study something to death.”

Fort Lauderdale hopes to hold a joint meeting with the County Commission in the coming weeks to discuss next steps.

In the meantime, Trantalis asked an official from the Whitehouse Group to get together with the other consultants and come up with a realistic number.

“We need some credible, consistent advice,” Trantalis said. “If you could work with the other consultants and … we could hear a response from the group, I think it would take us lightyears ahead. The county is looking for solid advice, too.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan

©2023 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.