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Will land-seizure costs kill plan for train bridge over New River? Some are banking on it

One day, commuter trains may roll through downtown Fort Lauderdale over a concrete bridge that stands at least 40 feet high.

But there’s still one thing that might derail the plan: The potentially astronomical costs of acquiring highly valuable private property through eminent domain.

“That may kill a bridge entirely,” Fort Lauderdale Commissioner John Herbst said just minutes after voting Tuesday night to support the county’s efforts to build a bridge over the New River.

County commissioners have made it clear they plan to build a bridge because a tunnel would cost a fortune. On Tuesday night, the county got an official buy-in from Fort Lauderdale when three of the city’s five commissioners cast “yes” votes embracing a bridge if a tunnel won’t work out.

Herbst voted yes along with Vice Mayor Pamela Beasley-Pittman and Commissioner Warren Sturman. Mayor Dean Trantalis and Commissioner Steve Glassman voted no, saying they preferred a tunnel.

“This resolution should not pass,” Glassman said before casting his vote. “This resolution is ‘wave the white flag.’ This is a very bad resolution for our city. This is being deaf to all of the testimony we heard today. This is not a good move.”

Trantalis agreed.

“Once you set the path to go in one direction, it’s very hard to turn around,” the mayor said after the vote. “I just hope you three did not write the epitaph of downtown Fort Lauderdale.”

Right after the bridge vote, all five commissioners agreed to pay the outside consultant BDO USA up to $325,000 to research the costs of building a tunnel along with the eminent-domain costs related to building a bridge through the downtown. According to BDO, a tunnel can be built for $880 million without requiring the taking of private land.

“Someone needs to come up with a real number for the county to look at,” Herbst said. “Without data, we can’t make good decisions. We need more data. Let’s get it.”

Eminent domain is a controversial process that allows governments to acquire private property for public use.

Eminent-domain costs usually represent 20% the cost of such a project, says Greg Stuart, executive director of the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization. If the bridge costs $500 million as predicted, that would leave $100 million for eminent domain, he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Trantalis scoffed at the low number.

He argues the costs of eminent domain will come to more than $1 billion considering all the development that’s cropped up along the pathway of the bridge in the past five years alone.

“If anything, the cost of eminent domain could be more than the cost of a bridge and tunnel combined,” Trantalis said. “I can tell you right now that the eminent-domain lawyers are salivating right now over the prospects of what the county is contemplating.”

Herbst, who spent 16 years as Fort Lauderdale’s city auditor before joining the commission, says there’s no way the costs of buying up land to make way for the bridge will be quick or cheap.

“These projects that have gone up on the north and south sides of the river are extremely valuable,” he said. “And any property we have to take is going to be costly, and it’s going to take years of litigation.”

Asi Cymbal, a developer who has invested $1.5 billion in a project that’s partly in the way of the proposed bridge, told commissioners Tuesday night that he plans to fight for his property.

“Just the lawsuits alone will tie this project up forever,” Glassman said Wednesday. “If we are able to do a tunnel with no takings at all and the cost delta is down to very little, we need to go with a tunnel.”

Glassman says he’s already reached out to a few county commissioners but has not yet heard back.

“I want us to stop talking past each other,” he said. “And I want to make sure they understand what BDO is presenting. We need to make sure everyone is up to date with the current information.”

Developer Charlie Ladd doesn’t own land along the tracks but he knows people who do.

Does he feel bad for them?

“No, because they’re going to get rich,” he quipped.

Ladd likened the idea of building a massive bridge through downtown to building an ugly jail right next to the New River — another ill-advised decision by the county, he said.

“People say a tunnel is super complicated,” Ladd said. “Well, so is a bridge. These are big decisions. Let’s just do everything we can to get them right.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at moc.lenitnesnus@nayrbs. Follow me on X @Susannah_Bryan

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