BRADENTON, Fla. - After a three-day political powwow at the state capital last week, Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos agreed to resume negotiations with the concessionaire originally chosen to finance and build the $1.2 billion Port of Miami Tunnel Project.

Kopelousos reluctantly gave state and South Florida officials until June 1 to finalize terms of a contract with Miami Access Tunnel. She said financial closing documents must be signed by Oct. 1. However, Kopelousos also said that she still believes seeking new proposals would be the better course of action.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez said the decision is good news for shippers and anyone who lives or works in downtown Miami.

"The port tunnel is a project of local, regional and statewide significance," he said.

The project calls for boring two 3,900-foot tunnels 100 feet below the water to create a bypass to the Port of Miami to divert freight trucks and cruise ship passengers away from downtown Miami, which presently is the only way to get to the port.

The Florida Department of Transportation, which spearheaded the mega-project for more than 20 years, has spent $30 million on planning, permitting, and obtaining proposals from firms to finance, design, build, maintain, and operate the tunnels.

FDOT planned to pay a concessionaire $457 million for building the project and another $800 million over 30 years to operate and maintain the tunnels through annual budget appropriations. Miami-Dade County agreed to pay $400 million of the building cost and planned to finance a portion of that contribution with the sale of bonds. The city of Miami agreed to contribute $50 million toward construction as well as right of way.

Miami Access Tunnel the top-ranked consortium bidding on the project in early 2007, was selected to do the up-front financing, design, and construction of the project, then the consortium would receive "availability payments" over 30 years to operate and maintain the tunnels. MAT initially planned to pay for a portion of the cost to build the tunnels through debt.

However, about the time that the final contract was to be signed late last year, the parent company of MAT's main equity partner, Babcock & Brown Infrastructure Group US LLC, encountered financial problems. Discussions were under way to replace MAT's main equity partner with Meridiam Infrastructure when Kopelousos halted talks. Ultimately, the transportation secretary said going forward with Meridiam would be too risky and the project should undergo a new procurement in an attempt to lower its overall cost.

But Miami and Miami-Dade County officials began a campaign to convince state legislative leaders that the tunnel project should not be delayed by a new procurement. Last Thursday, Kopelousos agreed to give negotiators extra time to work with MAT.

Meanwhile, another of Florida's significant P3 projects was delayed once again. FDOT on Friday announced that it has extended another 10 days the deadline for the submission of bids from firms interested in leasing the 78-mile-long Alligator Alley toll road in South Florida.

The new due date for bids, May 18, is to give proposers extra time to "finalize their negotiations with lenders," FDOT said in a brief announcement. More information on this project can be found at www.alligator-alley.com.

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