Going Underground

We might not give it a second thought today, but when the New River tunnel was proposed, it was one of the great local controversies of its time.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Jul. 1, 2017

Many of us crisscrossing downtown rely on the efficiency of the New River’s Henry E. Kinney Tunnel. No chance of those 30-minute holdups that seem to always happen at the worst time on the bridges at Andrews, Third or Fourth avenues. The meeting, the boss or perhaps your date can’t be kept waiting.

You know how lame this sounds. “I just missed the bridge….” You can see the person across the table thinking, “But yeah, don’t you live in Fort Lauderdale and take bridges into account?”

Let us now thank mightily those 607 voters who were the margin of victory after a bitter eight-year campaign in the 1950s. They made the choice: tunnel vs. new bridge.

Their votes led to what was for decades the only tunnel in Florida.

Opposition was fierce.

“Who’ll prevent highwaymen from robbing people in the tunnel?” came the cry from opponents. “It will become a carbon-monoxide death trap,” said others. “In summer, our booming thunderstorms will flood the tunnel and trap cars in it.”

And in fact, bridges were cheaper to build, up to three times cheaper.

“This is an extravagant monstrosity,” howled the publisher of the Fort Lauderdale News, R. H. Gore. “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 though a super- duper $5,000,000 luxury facility on an already outmoded highway,” read a 1956 editorial. It was likely penned by Gore himself.

The million dollars referred to were the city’s right-of-way costs. The rest was to be paid through a state fund. But even then, Gore pointed out, it was taxpayer money from gas taxes. 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?”

A slim majority bought the proposition. In a 1958 referendum after years of bickering, and active campaigning on the “for” side by the Miami Herald’s Broward editor Henry E. Kinney, citizens voted for the “luxury” option, 7,008 to 6,401. The tunnel carrying Federal Highway (U.S. 1) under Las Olas Boulevard and the New River was completed on Dec. 9, 1960.

Kinney’s name was belatedly attached to the tunnel in 1986, in honor of his efforts. By then citizens knew how farsighted this vision was.

At time of the tunnel’s christening in 1960, then Gov. LeRoy Collins called it a solution for “the worst traffic jam in the state.” By then the state’s cost had risen to $6.5 million. (The Virginia- based firm that built it later complained that it lost $750,000 on the project.)

The tunnel replaced a two-lane drawbridge built in 1926. Two-anda- half decades later, it was no match for the traffic of our expanding city. Accounts from the time described traffic so bad that it took as long as 45 minutes just to cross the bridge, causing tremendous backups on both sides. It could take about an hour to go just six blocks.

Building the tunnel under the New River was an engineering challenge, according to news reports detailing the process. They had to dig through the river – not under it - 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.

In the four-lane passageway itself, giant fans push in fresh air and push the exhaust out. Underneath the tunnel roadway, drains and pipes keep the surface dry. As for power, there are three separate sources of electrical power running everything including the lights, and there is a 500,000-watt diesel generator for backup.

It really is something of a miracle, this innovation of 57 years ago. The first time you head under and suddenly see a tall-masted schooner just above you - and think about how that is possible - you can only say “Wow.”

While it’s no longer the “only vehicular tunnel in Florida” – there are two now at Walt Disney World, and a 2014 tunnel for access to Port Miami – it remains by far the busiest.

As for those highwaymen, I don’t think they’d be any match for the speeding SUVs charging through the tunnel day and night. I’d worry more about their fate.