Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

"Anything you can do I can do better."

That Irving Berlin lyric from the 1946 musical "Annie Get Your Gun" could describe the current building wave at PortMiami, in which various cruise lines are constructing ever bigger and fancier terminals.

The latest to take the plunge is MSC Cruises, which last week signed a letter of intent to expand its previous development at PortMiami, a move that could result in two new terminals instead of one and is said to lock in MSC to berths for two mega-ships of up to 7,000 passengers each.

If all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed as anticipated and the Miami-Dade County Commission signs off, it will mean a hefty jump in passenger counts at the port, adding to the increase from last year's opening of Terminal A by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., boosting that line's already sizable presence.

The result, on a busy winter weekend in 2021, could be over 100,000 people coming and going from the port. That makes the opening of the Port Miami Tunnel in 2014 a rather fortunate development.

Before the opening of the 4,200-foot tunnel beneath Government Cut, vehicles heading in and out of the port had to reach Dodge Island by a bridge that left them navigating through downtown Miami for eight or 10 blocks before reaching the freeway.

Cruise lines with growth plans for Miami probably wouldn't have been deterred if the bridge was still the main connector to the island. But forcing all of the taxis, cars, busses and vans coming out of the port to a halt at a stoplight where the bridge meets Biscayne Boulevard would have been a bottleneck, to say the least.

Instead, the tunnel connects to the MacArthur Causeway, which leads directly to I-395, vastly easing simplifying traffic flows and making the trip a lot faster and more pleasant.

Funding the tunnel wasn't easy. Money was first earmarked in a 1987 federal highway bill that was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan who complained it was larded with pork barrel spending.

A revival of the idea in 2006 initially fell victim to the 2008 financial crisis, but scaling down the scope of the project from $3.1 billion to $1 billion allowed it to proceed under management of a different contractor.

In 2009 the tunnel seemed to me to be an extravagance in an atmosphere where every fourth homeowner was underwater on their mortgage. What were the chances it would come in on budget, critics wondered?

But a decade later it has proven to be, if not a godsend, at least a solid investment that is paying off for the port in a rising tide of new passengers and port fees, and for the cruise lines in a homeport for their dreadnought ships.

The tunnel is said to host 16,000 vehicle trips a day on a typical weekday, saving an estimated 3,400 total vehicle hours per day. Consider it $1 billion well spent.

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