A $45 million, four-story-high digging machine from Germany. A chief executive imported from France. As many as 400 jobs, many of them local — all part of the $1 billion-plus port tunnels project gearing up on Watson Island.
Beachgoers today can see the ongoing roadwork that will result in a wider MacArthur Causeway median, where the twin tunnels to the seaport are to be dug. The long-planned tunnels are meant to alleviate downtown truck traffic and improve access to the port. Digging is to begin in September of next year. The machine for the job — four stories tall and as long as a football field and a half — is being custom designed now.
German firm Herrenknecht, which boasts more than 30 years of mechanized tunneling equipment experience, is to build it and ship it here in pieces that will be barged from the port to Watson Island. The machine will be assembled underground. Each of the twin tubes it's to bore will be 41 feet in diameter. At their lowest point, the tunnels are to hit 120 feet below sea level.
The last tunnel boring machine delivered to the US was for a subway extension in New York commissioned by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said Christopher Hodgkins, vice president of Miami Access Tunnel, the team in charge of designing, building, financing, operating and maintaining the port tunnels. The project is a public-private partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation, covering $457 million; Miami-Dade County, contributing $402.5 million; and Miami, set to put in $50 million.
Herrenknecht is custom designing the machine with Miami's geology in mind and aims to minimize noise and vibrations, Mr. Hodgkins said. Once the port tunnels are dug — completion is expected May 15, 2014 — the machine is to be disassembled, barged out and shipped back to Germany for Herrenknecht to use as parts. The firm is the best in the tunnel boring business, Mr. Hodgkins said. And French firm Bouygues Construction, a key part of the Miami Access Tunnel team, is "basically considered the No. 1 tunnel builder in the world," he said. The firm worked on the underwater "Chunnel" linking the UK with France. It's going to take an expert to operate the boring machine here, Mr. Hodgkins said. "Something of this unique aptitude requires that we have experience." That person has yet to be tapped, but Bouygues has folks qualified for the job, he said.
Already the firm has imported from France Guillaume Dubois, Miami Access Tunnel's chief executive officer, who has settled in Coconut Grove with his family to spearhead the local tunnel project. Vice President Mr. Hodgkins, a public-private partnership aficionado, comes to Miami from nearby Sunrise, where he worked with engineering firm AECOM. Chief Operating Officer Rick Wilson is "experienced in huge mega-projects around the state of Florida and around the world — he is the consummate engineer," Mr. Hodgkins said. And Chief Financial Officer Christophe Couallier comes to Miami from Orlando. "We're all part of the community. We'll be here for the duration of this project and well after that," Mr. Hodgkins said.
The team now works out of offices in Doral, where it has easy access to the state department of transportation's local offices, as well as firms like AECOM and Jacobs Engineering, but plans to relocate to the tunnel site around August.
Transfield Services, known as VMS in Florida, is to provide tunnel operations and maintenance services. The firm already works with the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority and has 17 other contracts around the state, Mr. Hodgkins said. "We believe we put together the best team." Now, about 100 people are working on the tunnel project from the concessionaire team's end, handling everything from administration to design to construction. On top of that, Mr. Hodgkins estimates another 100 folks are already on the job through local subcontractors and vendors. "At the peak of this construction we anticipate well over 400 jobs," he said, adding that "we try to do all we can do to hire locally."
Of two job fairs last month, one in Little Haiti drew more than 400 people. The idea, Mr. Hodgkins said: "we want to make sure that this project is going to be a mirror of the community." The tunnel project will open opportunity for construction jobs, skilled labor jobs and even on-the-job training for unskilled workers, he said. On top of ensuring community workers have a hand in building the project, a main aim is building community buy-in, Mr. Hodgkins said. The team has been meeting with local governments and community groups to outline project plans and address questions and concerns. Traffic is a key issue.
To limit truck traffic, the plan is to remove soil and debris via barge, Mr. Hodgkins said.
"We want this project to come in on time and on budget," Mr. Hodgkins said. "But in the meantime we want to make sure that the concerns of the community are met front and first."
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