Train-tunnel fight not over, Fort Lauderdale mayor says: ‘I have a city to protect’

A screaming headline topped a blistering 2,141-word message sent to thousands by Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis: “County seeks monster train bridge. Downtown future at stake as bridge-tunnel debate comes to head regarding New River Crossing.”

The tactic worked. People noticed.

One observer said it was like throwing gas on an already raging fire, a reference to the ongoing battle between Broward County and Fort Lauderdale over the best way to get commuter trains across downtown Fort Lauderdale’s New River.

County commissioners want a $500 million bridge. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis — whose Monday afternoon email accuses the county of an “overlord approach” and rush to judgment — wants a $3 billion tunnel.

“We will not be bullied into accepting a bridge,” Trantalis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday. “Fort Lauderdale cannot afford to have a bridge running through it. I have a city to protect and billions of dollars of money already invested in real estate developments and an entire marine industry that will be compromised.”

As the owner of the project, the county plans to seek federal funding for a bridge. But the county is less likely to get that money if Fort Lauderdale says no to a bridge.

On Tuesday, the Fort Lauderdale commission is expected to vote on its preference during its regular 6 p.m. meeting. The topic will also come up earlier that day during the commission’s 1:30 p.m. conference meeting.

Some are expecting a showdown.

Business interests represented by Fort Lauderdale’s Chamber of Commerce, the Broward Workshop and the Downtown Development Authority have already come out in favor of a tunnel, despite the higher cost.

“The county’s obsession with a bridge approach blinds it from the clear impacts to our city that demand consideration,” Trantalis wrote in his message to 22,000 constituents. “These include the impact on economic development, the marine industry, vehicular traffic flow and individual neighborhoods. Then, there are quality-of-life aspects like noise and aesthetics. All of these factors have a value beyond a strict price tag comparison between a tunnel and bridge.”

Rallying the troops

City Commissioner John Herbst says he fully expects business leaders to show up in force on Tuesday to push for a tunnel.

The mayor’s lengthy newsletter, which hammers the county for supporting the idea of a bridge through downtown Fort Lauderdale, was designed to “rally the troops” to come out against the bridge, Herbst told the Sun Sentinel.

Herbst would not venture a guess on how the commission will vote that night.

“I never try to handicap the outcome of a commission vote,” he said. “I’ve seen them flip people too often. I never assume until I see the vote.”

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, shown at a commission meeting on Sept. 5, says he has no intention of letting the county build a bridge through the city's fast-growing downtown. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, shown at a commission meeting on Sept. 5, says he has no intention of letting the county build a bridge through the city’s fast-growing downtown. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

As far as the county is concerned, the vote won’t mean much.

Broward Mayor Nan Rich made that clear in a 531-word email sent to the Sun Sentinel in response to the feisty newsletter sent out by Trantalis on Monday.

“The joint County-City Commission workshop held on December 5 effectively marked the end of the debate over the New River Crossing,” Rich wrote. “Anyone with lingering doubts about whether a bridge or a tunnel should be pursued should read the extensive reports issued by the joint county-city consultant team that resulted in more than 450 pages of supporting documentation, analyses and comparisons.”

Waste of money?

Never mind that. Fort Lauderdale plans to use $974,000 in federal money to hire experts to do another study researching the cost of a tunnel.

Herbst says that would be folly if the City Commission agrees Tuesday to move forward with a bridge.

“It would be a waste of money,” he said. “We need to decline the grant if we’re not moving forward with that option.”

Greg Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization, says it all comes down to money and the tunnel option simply costs way too much.

“I live in Fort Lauderdale,” Stuart told the Sun Sentinel. “I would love a tunnel. The DDA wants a tunnel. I don’t disagree with them. Everybody wants this tunnel. But somebody has to pay for the tunnel.”

Another issue is time, he says. A tunnel will take more time to plan and to build.

“If we go with a tunnel, that tunnel will be under construction 10 years from now,” he said. “And it will take 10 years to build.”

A bridge, on the other hand, can be built in the next eight to nine years, he said.

Critics worry the bridge, if built, might be the ugliest ever seen.

County Commissioner Steve Geller promises that won’t be the case, even if a prettier bridge costs more.

“With the attention raised over this, there will be every attempt to make sure it has different curlicues,” Geller said. “I’m sure Fort Lauderdale will keep up the pressure to ensure it’s not an ugly bridge. Anything we can do that doesn’t raise the cost by obscene amounts, I am sure we will be willing to do that.”

In recent weeks, Trantalis says he’s gotten pressure from other cities to give up on his tunnel fight.

‘Bulls in a china shop’

A few hours before the county met with the Fort Lauderdale commission on Dec. 5, Trantalis says he got a call from Hollywood Mayor Josh Levy asking him to back off his push for a tunnel.

“I asked, ‘What if we wanted to put a bridge through downtown Hollywood,” Trantalis said. “These cities are just hell-bent on getting this done, just like the county. Like bulls in a china shop. They don’t care about the impact this will have on the city or its economy. They’re just running roughshod. In the end, they’re just looking out for themselves. Well I’m looking out for Fort Lauderdale.”

Levy told the Sun Sentinel he remembers making the call.

“Fort Lauderdale is one small stop for the 6 million people in South Florida,” Levy said Friday. “There is no going back on what is a critical regional infrastructure that is already in motion, beginning in Miami-Dade and continuing through Broward. And Palm Beach County is waiting on us. We want to connect service to cities in North Broward and Palm Beach County. It will happen.”

Levy argues a bridge will be better than a tunnel because it will allow Fort Lauderdale to showcase its downtown to passengers riding the train.

“Fort Lauderdale has a beautiful downtown,” Levy said. “And all the people transiting through the city on the train will get to see the beauty of his city. In a tunnel, no one could see the downtown. They’d be in the dark.”

But if it were up to Trantalis, it would be a tunnel or nothing.

“Ultimately, if there is not consensus, this project is doomed to fail,” he wrote toward the end of his four-page newsletter. “The Biden administration and Congress are not going to help pay for a project that is subject to deep community divisions. How can there be consensus when essential studies have yet to be completed and discussed in community meetings? How can there be consensus when there is so little information about the county’s planned direction?”

Trantalis closed his email with this line: “Fort Lauderdale deserves better. Broward County deserves better. And, my friends, you deserve better.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan

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