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The Key West-Havana Tunnel



by Amerigo Vespucci



"Go south, young man, and vacation with the country."
New York Times Op-Ed, August 27, 1997

The drive south from Miami is a crowded one. Whether you make it in a minivan, sports car, or a Ford-built Ferrari, the traffic is what sticks in your mind. Eight lanes, bumper-to-bumper, filled with Americans and Canadians heading south to the hot spots of the Florida Keys and beyond that, to Cuba. Driving through the upper Keys is much like driving through Homestead -- brief glimpses of exit-ramp diners, gas stations, and truck stops. The differences stand out, however. There's no skyscraper-lined horizon, and swamps surround the raised lanes of I-95 for much of the trip. The small towns of Key Largo, Layton, and Marathon are dominated by the concrete construction of I-95, the interstate that they serve, and is their sole reason for existence. Few drivers note the beautiful reefs of John Pennekamp State Park or the white sandy beaches of Coco Plum -- their eyes are south, to the casinos and lights of Cuba.

At the Seven Mile Bridge there is a tieup, as always. Here, the highway narrows from eight lanes to four, and the traffic slows to a crawl. Tempers flare, but not to the road-rage proportions of northern drivers. After all, this is a vacation, or so parents tell their children, and Key West is only an hour away. From Big Pine Key south, the impatient crawl allows those vacationers to get a glimpse of the Florida Keys as they might have been before the highways encroached upon these small islands. But it's only a glimpse, as traffic soon speeds up and the scenery blurs by the windows. Only the vast, blue ocean remains the same, its azure brilliance contrasting with the worn concrete of the interstate.

Few of those who travel the route to Havana bother to stop and gawk at the immense steel and stone bridges built over a century ago, the first rope that linked the Florida Keys to the mainland. Few stop and think that those bridges, built by Henry Flagler in the early years of the 20th century, are the forebears of the I-95 extension and the tunnel beyond. Those who do stop rarely bother with more than a quick picture and perhaps a T-shirt with the phrase "Got steel?" and a picture of the rusted old Bahia Honda bridge. They almost never venture down to the surface roads of the Lower Keys, where coral islands house those who work along the highway or in Key West.

As I-95 nears Boca Chica Key, the northern terminus of the Havana-Key West Tunnel, the road once again widens to eight lanes, speeding traffic along towards the orderly chaos of the Key West Terminal, a modern marvel scarcely less impressive than the tunnel itself. The terminal encompasses eight acres, an area nearly as great as that of the city of Key West, whose population of 30,000 is dwarfed by the ten million people who funnel through the tunnel annually. Those ten million visitors bring with them over five million cars and trucks, all of which must be transported across the hundred-mile distance between Boca Chica Key and Hershey, Cuba, the southern terminus of the tunnel.

Upon arriving at the terminal, visitors and their cars are funneled into separate waiting lots, based on when their train is scheduled to depart. The loading and unloading of hundreds of automobiles per train is no small task, and only the strict ticketing system of the Tunnel Authority keeps the train schedule from descending into chaos. Tickets must be purchased in advance, and travelers must arrive well in advance of their scheduled train. Experienced travelers know to purchase their tickets far ahead of time, as costs mount dramatically the closer to the travel date. Those foolish enough to purchase tickets at the station are charged a premium and usually placed on the very first train the next morning -- unless there's a cancellation or a no-show. With so much demand, every spot must be filled, and traveling stand-by is usually a recipe for disappointment.

When the announcement for the next train comes, Tunnel Authority supervisors funnel cars and passengers into their designated spots. Drivers travel separately from their automobiles, which are loaded into car wagons expertly loaded by workers who do the same thing every day. Occasionally, mishaps occur and delays happen. Trains later on in the day have a greater chance to run late, but every night at midnight the slate is wiped clean and the schedule reset. During summer, when demand is lighter, fewer trains run. During winter, it seems as if half of North America is on Boca Chica Key.

Sometimes the wait seems interminable, but eventually all the passengers and cars are loaded, the stand-by seats are filled, and the high-speed train begins its run. Two hours later, you're in Cuba, land of rum, pineapples, casinos, and vacations.

From Carlito's Dream: The Story of the Florida Straits Tunnel, Random House, New York, New York, 2007.


When Henry Flagler first imagined a railroad line connecting Key West to the rest of the United States in the waning years of the 19th century, he was perceived a madman. "Flagler's Folly" was laughed at in newspapers both North and South, and though this was a man who had built his fortune during the Civil War and helped found Standard Oil, many doubted that his dream would ever see reality. But this was a man who had already made half of Florida his kingdom. During the Gilded Age, New York City socialites eager to escape winter's grasp had fled south to Florida. Flagler had taken advantage of this, building railroads and constructing magnificent hotels all along Florida's east coast. With Key West, however, it seemed as though he had taken one step too far.

The Spanish-American War changed all of that. Suddenly, the United States found itself with dozens of new territories in the Caribbean, and as Theodore Roosevelt's plan for a canal across Panama gained steam, there became a demand for ports to connect shipping through the canal with the United States at large. The man who could create a viable deep-water port far enough south could become rich on the profits earned from that shipping. "Flagler's Folly" suddenly appeared to be economically viable.

Over the next decade, Flagler worked to make his dream a reality. Working with architects, engineers, and thousands of laborers, he built the Overseas railway, a line of steel connecting the hamlet of Miami with Florida's largest city -- Key West. Completed in 1912, the railway was hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, and was widely acclaimed by the same newspapers that called it a "folly" scarcely a decade before. "Time and space have been conquered," trumpeted one newspaper.

Unfortunately, even before Flagler's death in 1913, the railroad was clearly on shaky financial ground. New oil-fired steamships eliminated the need for a coaling stop in Key West, and could carry more cargo. In addition, the deep-water Port of Tampa was better connected by rail to the rest of the United States, and because its construction had not been as expensive as the Overseas Railway, it could charge less for transportation. When a 1935 hurricane devastated the railway, the railroad company was financially unable to rebuild and sold the remaining spans to the state of Florida, which built a highway on top of the railway bridges.

Given the federal designation U.S. 1, the highway would serve the Florida Keys relatively unchanged for over thirty years. Two politicians, one in Cuba and the other in Florida, would change all of that.


The year 1960 was a politically tumultuous year on both sides of the Florida Strait. In the United States, the presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was as contentious a contest as anyone could remember. Heading into the November election, however, the good-looking Kennedy appeared to have decisively won the nation's first televised debate against a visibly uncomfortable Richard Nixon. Further south, in Cuba, the conflict was less one of words and more one of guns and bullets. There, former president Fulgencio Batista ruled the country as a dictator behind the scenes of the official president, Andres Rivero Aguero, who had defeated Ramon Grau in a protested election two years previous. The primary opposition to their rule came from communist-supported rebels under the command of Raul Castro, whose brother had been killed four years previous while attempting to return to Cuba from a Mexican exile. Several other important rebel leaders had also been killed when their boat, the Granma, had been sunk by a Cuban gunboat.

By November 1960, the situation had almost reached the boiling point. Though resistance to Batista's rule was not organized under any one banner, it was numerous enough to present a threat to the stability of the government. On November 17, 1960, only four days after ordering a further harsh crackdown on dissident groups, Fulgencio Batista was assassinated when his car was destroyed in an explosion triggered by opposition group. The Cuban government immediately fragmented, with no fewer than seventeen different groups vying for power in the country. Lame-duck President Dwight Eisenhower pledged the support of the United States for Aguero, the official leader of the country.

Aguero proved surprisingly effective in derailing the many factions attempting to seize power. To limit the various military coups that had been ignited or were brewing, he pledged not to remove Batista family members or supporters from their positions. To appeal to the various liberal and leftist groups in the country, he announced that as soon as was possible, he would return constitutional authority to the country, which had been operating under a suspended constitution for several years. In addition, he pledged to convene a constitutional convention. He quietly informed each of the Batista and military factions that this was simply a ruse to allow their faction to seize more power. After having been seen as Batista's puppet for so many years, few of the factions had any thought beyond Aguero being their puppet as well. None believed that he could make it on his own. And to those who didn't respond to any of his diplomatic efforts, he offered the barrel of a gun.

By the time John F. Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, Aguero had isolated, killed off, or drawn to him each of the major factions vying for control in Cuba. Only Castro's communist faction lay beyond his grasp, but even it had been wracked by defections in the wake of Batista's death as various groups fought over the best way to take advantage of the situation. By November 1962, two years after the assassination of Batista, Aguero could be said to be the de facto ruler of Cuba, not just the figurehead he had been before Batista's death. The constitutional convention he had convened in the wake of the "troubles" as they were known, had turned real dividends in terms of his ability to control Batista's more fervent followers, who were concerned about what the liberalists and leftist might do if they managed to gain control of the government. By playing off one side against the other, Aguero was able to salvage a stable political and economic base for Cuba. American dollars continued to flow south, and American tourists continued to visit what had become a far quieter island. New casino projects continued to be announced, and the "side benefits" that Aguero received from American corporations were put to good use in helping to stabilize the country.

In the United States, President Kennedy's administration was an unremarkable one, distinguished only by troubles in Laos and continued Republican accusations that he was "soft on Communism," an accusation bolstered by Kennedy's rapprochement with the Soviet leader, Nikita Krushchev. Though Kennedy could point to success on the domestic front, the Republicans picked up several seats in the mid-term Congressional elections. Perhaps the most startling victory was that of dark horse candidate Carlito Gonzales for the contested Florida Congressional seat. Born of Cuban parents, Gonzales had been raised in Fort Lauderdale, a then-small town in southeast Florida. Gonzales defeated heavy Republican favorite Emerson Rupert in the Republican primary, then proceeded to win one of the closest elections in Florida history over sitting Congressman George A. Smathers, a close friend of President Kennedy. Gonzales's native Floridian background and his ability to appeal to white voters put him over the top, as did his youth when compared with the fifty-year-old Smathers. His attractive wife and children ironically reminded voters of President Kennedy, despite the fact that the two men were members of opposite parties.

Gonzales would be the beneficiary of one of the largest periods of economic growth in Florida's history. Thanks to the widespread adoption of air conditioning and an aging population, Florida became the vacation and retirement center for the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of new residents arrived from other states, drawn by good weather, a growing economy, and other factors. Cuba, too, was a beneficiary of this boom, as the stabilized political situation encouraged many Americans to vacation in Cuba. The reinstatement of constitutional democracy and the announcement of the first presidential election since 1958 fostered a belief that Cuba was safe and a great place to visit. So great was the demand for ferries to service the Key West-Havana route that World War II LSTs were pressed into service as makeshift car ferries. Though many were in poor condition after twenty years in storage and of limited seaworthiness, it was thought that they would prove to be a useful interim solution until more ferries could be built.

On October 13, 1964, the Pride of Miami, formerly known as LST 466, set sail from Key West to Havana. Moving at a stately 11 knots, she was scheduled to arrive in Havana at 11 p.m. after a leisurely 8-hour ferry ride. She carried 17 cars, 3 trucks, and 345 passengers. It was an unusually heavy load for so early in the fall, but the crew were eager for the business. Their ferry company was being hard-pressed by several of the other ferry services that operated the Havana route, most of which were operating newer, more cost-effective ships. The Pride of Miami had been built in 1943 in Evansville, Indiana, and had served in the South Pacific during the war, ferrying tanks and men from island to island. After the war, it had been mothballed in Norfolk, Virginia, and had been purchased in 1961 to serve as a car ferry to Havana. Its engines were balky, the electrical system shot, and it handled worse than most of the lobster boats that sailed daily from Key West, but it was what was available, and so it served the growing tourist trade to Cuba.

The evening of the 13th began with fair weather and only scattered showers, but as the evening turned to night, the weather began to worsen. Unbeknownst to anyone aboard, Hurricane Isabell, which had been forecast to strike Belize on the afternoon of the 14th, had taken a radical turn north, directly towards the Florida Keys. Shortly after departing Key West, the Pride of Miami's radio shorted out. To the crew aboard, it was just another in a long line of things to be fixed. They were aware there was a hurricane out there, but it was heading to Belize, and while it might make the crossing a little rough, it certainly wouldn't interfere with the voyage.

By 8 p.m., however, most of the crew were beginning to believe that something was wrong. Though they'd expected rough seas, these were beyond that, cresting at ten feet at times. With every wave, the ship rolled and plunged. None of the passengers had avoided seasickness, and the covered deck, never the cleanest, sloshed with rainwater, seawater, and the vomit of seasick passengers. Things would get much worse. Two hours later, winds were gusting upwards of 70 miles and hour, and the ship was taking on water. Without a functioning radio, no distress call could be sent, and though the lights of Cuba could faintly be seen though the driving rain, the ship would never reach those lights. At approximately 11:30, the chains that had secured the cars aboard the Pride of Miami began to break with the force of the storm. Crashing back and forth, they added their unstable weight to the rolling ship, intensifying the ship's roll. With every wave, the ship oscillated more and more. At 11:47 p.m. the captain gave the order to abandon ship. Many of the flimsy life rafts couldn't be launched in the massive waves, wind, and driving rain, and those that could be launched were launched half full. At approximately midnight, the Pride of Miami gave up the ghost. After taking a wave estimated at 30 feet over her port side, the ship capsized and sank, taking 187 passengers and crew with her to the bottom of the ocean. Only the close proximity of the Cuban shore allowed any of the passengers to survive.

In the wake of the disaster, politicians across Florida called for a reform of the ferry industry in the state. In the final months of his run for reelection, President Kennedy also seized upon the issue, and proposed an investigation into the incident as well as funding for research into replacements for the older ferries in use on the Havana route. The Pride of Miami incident made Hurricane Isabell the deadliest American hurricane since the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, the same storm that caused the bankruptcy of the Overseas Railroad.

In addition to President Kennedy, Senator Carlito Gonzales also took up storm prevention as his personal political crusade. In the run-up to the November elections, bi-partisan support saw a multi-million dollar subsidy package formed for the Havana ferries, money for the families of those killed, and additional funding for the National Hurricane Center's forecasting department. In Cuba, the reaction was much more sanguine. Cuba is hit by several hurricanes a year on average, and though 11 Cuban citizens lost their lives on the Pride of Miami, the nation's attention was focused on the upcoming presidential and senatorial elections, the first in several years. Despite that distraction, President Aguero did make a speech about the "tragedy in the straits." Unremarked upon in the media was Aguero's declaration: "Perhaps one day Cuba and the United States might be linked by a great bridge, preventing tragedies like the one we are here to remember -- but until that date, we must stay aware, alert, and conscious of the fact that only by being watchful can we keep our sailors safe."

Those words went unnoticed in the United States, as was a small clause in the Isabell Recovery Appropriations Act marked "Florida Strait Bridge."

Hidden in the hundred-page Act was that small listing, a $50,000 appropriation inserted by a junior congressman from Louisiana who had a political backer in the ocean surveying business. Perhaps surprisingly, the work was done capably, with a thorough mapping of the Florida Straits from Key West to Havana being done by a sonar sledge dragged behind a trawler. Even a few core samples of the shore were taken, indicating a solid coral base below a layer of sediment. The resulting 200-page report found its way to Senator Gonzales's desk in Washington, where it was dutifully released in press-release format to the South Florida media, which proceeded to write an inevitable series of editorials denouncing waste and laughing at the idea of a bridge across the Florida Strait, which the mapping had revealed to be over a mile deep at its deepest points. Any bridge would have to float on the surface of the water, thus making it vulnerable to the same hurricanes that sank the Pride of Miami.

For a few weeks in the fall of 1965, the report brought a fair bit of humor to the editorial pages of South Florida's newspapers. An enterprising entrepreneur printed "Florida Strait Bridge Authority" bumper stickers, which sold at a fast pace. But it was a temporary laugh, and fairly soon Florida was back to worrying about the growing war in Vietnam along with the rest of the country. In Cuba, the economy continued to boom as the nation began to be referred by many in the United States as "the Monaco of America" after the small tourist-friendly European nation that based its economy on gaming and good weather. Honest elections were held for the first time in nearly a decade, and to the surprise of many outsiders, Carlos Prío Socarrás, who had returned from a Batista-imposed exile, won an overwhelming victory. Aside from minor Communist disturbances in the western mountains and grumbling among the elite, who had backed Batista, the nation was at peace.

That peace did not extend to former Cuban president Andres Rivero Aguero, who had been overwhelmingly turned out of office. The hand that he had nurtured had bit him. He had honestly expected to remain in office, and had counted on the gratitude of the liberals for restoring constitutional government. He had not really believed in it as anything more than a tool to calm the country, and now it had turned him out of office. If he had tried to protest, to remain in power, no one would have accepted it -- even the army had been infected by the germ of liberalization that had been nurtured by the booming economy. Disgusted, Aguero left Cuba to serve as the CEO of an import/export corporation in the Dominican Republic. After that company's bankruptcy in 1969, he was reduced to making public goodwill appearances on behalf of the Cuban government, which paid him a nominal stipend.

In early 1970, Aguero visited Washington, D.C. as part of a "mission of understanding." The trip basically equated to a two-week vacation for those who went, paid for by the Cuban government. During the trip, Aguero dutifully made a stop at Senator Gonzales's Washington office. While exchanging pleasantries, Aguero noticed an unusual drawing of a bridge on Gonzales's office wall. It was an artist's conception of a Florida Strait bridge, created two years previous and kept by Gonzales to "remind him of the limitations of human effort." Aguero became fascinated by the drawing to the point that Gonzales offered to give it to Aguero. Though Aguero declined, the image stuck with him well after his trip to Washington. Before he left, Gonzales gave him a copy of the 200-page ocean floor survey of the Florida Strait as a parting gift. Though it might have seemed an odd gift, Gonzales recognized Aguero's interest, and it was a gift that Aguero greatly appreciated.

As a retired politician, he had ample time to explore the possibilities presented by a permanent link between the United States and Cuba. The opportunity was certainly there -- by 1972, more than three million cars were being transported annually across the Florida Strait. Cuba had become a major tourist destination for wealthy and middle-class Americans and Canadians eager to escape the crowded beaches of Florida. In addition, Cuba's comparatively lax drug, alcohol, and gaming laws provided entertainment options that simply weren't available in either the United States or Canada. Adventurous European tourists interested in finding something different from what could be found in Spain, southern France, or Italy, also began to travel to Cuba. Though their numbers were small at first, they would become a not insignificant part of the tourist trade by the mid-1990s.

These facts were clear to Aguero, as was the fact that a bridge, if constructed, could earn its builder immense profits. But the problem was that such a bridge was impossible. The 1965 survey clearly showed that the average depth of the Florida Strait was over half a mile deep -- far too deep for any bridge pilings. A floating bridge was clearly out of the question, due to the hurricane threat. Though discouraged by the impossibility of a bridge, he began to investigate tunnel options instead. The Cuban government, only too eager to bury the remnants of the Batista era, in 1972 created a small committee to investigate the possibility of a permanent link between the Florida Keys and Cuba. With Aguero at its head, he would be shuffled safely away from politics and in a position to do no more harm to the government. The committee was funded with a nominal budget, and secretly, Aguero was pleased. He had no desire to reenter politics, regardless of what the Cuban government might have feared. The bridge/tunnel project was just the thing to keep him occupied, and he plunged into it with full enthusiasm.

He and the two engineers he was able to hire threw themselves into the project whole-heartedly. Despite his limited budget, Aguero visited tunnels around the world, and looked at the plans for some of the most ambitious projects being undertaken around the world. From the initial drillings of the Seikan tunnel in Japan to the plans for the Channel Tunnel to the inner workings of the decade-old Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the committee examined it all. But all the tunnels they visited were inadequate. They were too short, too shallow, or impractical for the Florida Strait. As Aguero's initial enthusiasm began to fade, he began to examine more and more radical ideas: the plans for the Bering Strait bridge, the Messina Bridge, and other grand projects. By late 1976, Aguero was ready to admit defeat. The Florida Strait was simply too long, too deep, and too unstable to allow for any existing tunnel design to be used.

To make matters worse, the worldwide economic recession caused by the OPEC oil embargo had begun to affect the Cuban economy. With less money available for tourism, the Cuban economy suffered from a drought of American dollars. In addition, the rising price of gasoline made many Americans reluctant to take long trips by car, including the drive to Key West and on the ferries across to Havana. Many of the ferries, already suffering under high fuel prices, went bankrupt as the flow of traffic evaporated. To fix the situation, the government began to slash spending, hoping to equalize a growing deficit. One of the items on the chopping block was Aguero's small bridge "committee."

On December 19, 1976, the last day before the Christmas holiday, Aguero and his engineers met with Alan Grant, a young British engineer who had theorized a new type of tunnel design the year previously. Called the Suspended Immersed Tube (SIT), the design basically consisted of a long steel tube, constructed in sections. The sections were to have a positive buoyancy, meaning they would float if not held down. Cables would then be attached between the sectioned tube and the ocean's floor, creating a design similar to that of a suspension bridge, but using the principle of buoyancy instead of gravity. The design was far cheaper than drilling through hard rock, and unlike a floating bridge, could be constructed in areas where weather was a factor. The immersed design meant that even in severe storms, like the hurricanes that plague the Caribbean Sea, the tunnel would remain undisturbed. And thanks to the fact that the tunnel could be positioned at any depth by lengthening or shortening the cables, the design would avoid the problems associated with the Strait's deep terrain.

Aguero and his engineers were intrigued by the idea, but did not take to it right away. It was a new, untested idea, and had never been built, even in test form. Grant was a young, enthusiastic engineer, but his relative inexperience made Aguero pause. He had submitted a similar design to Italian authorities seven years previous as part of a competition for a link connecting Sicily to Italy via the Strait of Messina. He had been turned down. After a hard day of questions and debate, Aguero and his engineers decided the SIT tunnel was worth exploring further, if possible. The idea of the SIT design dominated Aguero's mind throughout the Christmas and New Year's holiday. By mid-January, Aguero had made up his mind. His two engineers could find no fault with the plan other than its untested nature, and so Grant returned to Cuba to detail his design in a lengthy plan.

Time was of the essence. Budget cuts had eliminated Aguero's little committee, and after the beginning of the fiscal year on April 20, there would be no more government money to continue the work. Their small Havana office would be closed, turned over to some other government agency, and the engineers would have to find other jobs. But if they could just come up with a design in time, there might be a stay of execution for the group.

The four men worked day and night on the design, struggling through the lack of information about the Strait. Though the American survey had done a spectacular job in 1965 with so little in the way of funding, there was almost no information about actual seabed conditions, and the mapping that had been done a decade previously had been crippled by the limited technology then available. They knew the depth of the water, but not whether the sea floor was rocky, sandy, or lined with coral, as shoreside core samples indicated. As April 20 approached, Aguero knew they would not be finished in time. It was simply too massive a project to finish in just four months, and all four men were exhausted. One day before the office was due to be closed, the four men packed up their papers, equipment, and samples and moved it all to Aguero's estate outside of Havana. Aguero had a small fortune amassed during his term as President, but even he couldn't afford to pay the other three men and provide funding for continued research.

As a result, in May, 1977, Aguero flew to Washington D.C. to visit with Senator Gonzales, now in his third term as the senior Republican senator from Florida. Outlining the work he was doing in Cuba, Aguero requested any financial or logistical support that could be made available by the U.S. government. But the United States too was going through a round of budget cuts and suffering under the weight of stagflation. Furthermore, the new President, former California Governor Jerry Brown, had promised to curb government spending and balance the budget in an effort to stabilize the economy. Anything as outlandish as a bridge to Cuba would be immediately shot down, Gonzales explained, but he would make an effort to obtain funding for a thorough survey of the Florida Strait, something that had been done only partially in 1965. The survey could be played as an environmental move, thus avoiding the taint of unnecessary spending and capitalizing on the rapidly-growing environmental movement.

Gonzales's willingness to assist Aguero may seem strange on the surface. After all, why would a successful U.S. Senator be so eager to assist a former Cuban president trying to bring more tourists to his country, especially at the risk of being labeled a "reckless spender?" Gonzales explained his reasoning in an interview shortly before his death in 2004. "What they [the anti-tunnel coalition] didn't understand was that these cars don't just appear from nothing down there in Key West. They've got to drive in from out of state -- from New York, Michigan, whatever. And they're going to buy gas, buy groceries, and maybe make a stop or two along the way. People who wouldn't otherwise visit Florida would visit [us] on the way down to Cuba." In addition, later questions were raised about whether Gonzales had been looking for a "legacy project," something for people to remember him by in the history books.

Regardless of his reasoning, one thing is certain -- after that May 1977 meeting, Gonzales became as firm a believer in the Key West-Havana tunnel as Aguero himself. In late 1977, a provision in the Clean Water Act provided for a $2 million study of the seabed of the Florida Strait. Though virtually no Americans were aware of it, the U.S. government's involvement in the Florida Strait Tunnel was officially under way.

That appropriation, of course, did little to alleviate the financial problems troubling Aguero's underfunded group. Though the research would eventually provide information critical to the planning of the tunnel, what was needed immediately was funding to continue that planning. Through 1980, Aguero continued to fund the small group out of his own pocket, but as he watched his bank balance drop, he continued to petition the government for financial support to no avail. In 1979, the Cuban media began to pick up on Aguero's seemingly quixotic quest for a Florida Strait tunnel. His story was spread across the country, and although most people considered his plan a crazy one, his determination to see the plan through won him not a few supporters. Private donations began trickling in from both Cubans and Americans who had heard of his plan from newspapers in the United States.

As a result, in the fall of 1979, Aguero created the Florida Strait Tunnel Company in order to appropriately manage the donations and whatever government funding they would manage to gather in the future. For the first year of operation, Aguero funded the company out of his own pocket and through unsolicited donations. In the spring of 1980, two events would change all of that.

The first of these was the announcement that Senator Gonzales had been named the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 1980 U.S. Presidential Election. As a candidate, Gonzales served to balance the ticket of U.S. Senator Ronald Reagan, who hailed from California. Running against incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown, it was the first time that two politicians from the same state had faced off for the Presidency. Aguero viewed the nomination as a triumph for the tunnel project, but even if he could get elected, Gonzales would face a tall task in forcing a tunnel funding bill through Congress. In the United States, those people who had heard of Aguero's quest to build a tunnel generally thought it to be a blue-sky project with no immediate chance of coming true. A few far-sighted individuals did donate to Aguero's company, but these were few and far between.

The second major event in the spring of 1980 to affect the tunnel plan would change all of this. On February 8, 1980, the hydrofoil Barracuda caught fire while traveling from Havana to Key West. Launched in the winter of 1979, the Barracuda was considered the latest and greatest thing to come to the Havana ferry route. Carrying 120 passengers, she could reach 45 knots and travel the 100 nautical miles between Key West and Havana in just over two hours, a vast improvement over ships like the ill-fated Pride of Miami. The ancient LSTs had long been phased out, but most of the car ferries on the route had more in common with the Pride of Miami than they did with the modern Barracuda. Tragically, the Barracuda's very modernness caused problems. New wiring aboard the hydrofoil failed, sparking a fire fanned by the ship's rapid speed. By the time the Barracuda was stopped, the flames were several hundred feet high, tragically blocking the escape of many of the passengers.

Of the 134 passengers and crew, only 27 survived to be picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter responding to the ship's distress calls. The heat of the fire was intense enough to melt the aluminum superstructure of the ship into a blackened, twisted metal mess that hissed in a cloud of steam as it sank into the ocean. Among the dead was New York Yankees pitcher Adiel Palma, a Cuban national who had been returning to the United States prior to Spring Training. Though not on the level of famed Yankees like Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, or "Goose" Gossage, he nonetheless was intended to be an important part of the Yankees pitching rotation heading into the 1980 season. His death, coming on the heels of the plane-crash death of Thurman Munson, hit the Yankees hard.

In the United States at large, Palma's death put a face on the disaster for the American public. While people may have had difficulty identifying with faceless victims, they could certainly recognize the sorrow in the face of Palma's widow. In the weeks following the disaster, Aguero traveled to the United States making speeches proclaiming the need for a tunnel in order to prevent tragedies like the Barracuda. Accusations that Aguero was capitalizing on the deaths of others were put to rest when Palma's widow announced that she would be making a large donation to Aguero's organization. In the wake of the tragedy, the Cuban government, eager to show that it was doing something to prevent further accidents, began subsidizing Aguero's corporation.

On the election trail, Senator Gonzales turned the accident into a campaign issue when he made the announcement that he supported the construction of the Key West-Havana tunnel at a stop in Texas. Ronald Reagan, having consulted with Gonzales on the issue, also took up the tunnel's construction as part of his "Rebuilding America" platform that targeted sitting president Jerry Brown's failures in Iran, reviving the economy, and the fall of South Vietnam to the North in 1978. Brown countered by attacking Reagan's age and accusing him of being "fiscally reckless."

Despite Brown's counterattack, he could not shake his record of domestic and international failure. Even his one international success -- the signing of the START accords with the Soviet Union -- turned against him as Reagan was able to cast Brown as "soft on Communism." Though that declaration carried less of a sting than it did in the 1960s, thanks to the advent of denete, it still hurt Brown in the South and Midwest. In part because of that loss, Reagan and Gonzales won by an overwhelming margin in November. In March, 1981, as part of Reagan's "Rebuilding America" campaign promise, negotiations began between the United States and Cuba on a Tunnel Treaty.

As proposed, the treaty would outline the border issues associated with a tunnel as well as detailing each nation's financial and jurisdictional responsibilities during the construction. During the debates surrounding the treaty in each country, the general public got its first look at the plans proposed by Aguero's engineers. Until 1981, talk about the tunnel had been couched in the most general of terms. Engineers hired by the major television networks could only speculate about the exact specifications, and so debate was generally limited by what was known. When more precise data was released that spring, debate over the tunnel exploded. Every special-interest group from the environmental movement to trade groups to manufacturing concerns wanted to make their voice heard, and wanted their chance to speak -- now.

In the United States, environmental groups were appalled by the tunnel's path through the coral reef off Key West. As planned, the tunnel would have been blasted through the reef before reaching deeper water, causing immense damage to the delicate ecosystem. In regards to trade, American unions feared that the tunnel would allow a flood of low-cost Cuban products to enter the country, thanks to Cuba's lower minimum wage. These were the sorts of problems that faced the Tunnel Treaty negotiations. Dozens of groups demanded -- and got -- their say, forcing changes in the name of political compromise.

The plan to have the tunnel run along the seafloor in shallower water was shelved at the behest of the environmental lobby. Instead, the tunnel would go below the reef south of Key West, dug through the dead, bleached segments of the reef a hundred feet below the reef's living heart. It was a compromise that left no one happy, least of all the companies planning on bidding to build the tunnel, for whom the cost of construction climbed with every concession. The labor unions got their bone as well, with Reagan's pledge that no free-trade agreement would be signed with Cuba for at least thirty years. That promise was written into the treaty as well. The negotiations in committee lasted for several months, and with each passing day, Andres Rivero Aguero, president of the Florida Strait Tunnel Company, feared that he would never see his tunnel built.

In 1981, Aguero celebrated his 76th birthday, and despite his advanced age, he was remarkably spry and active, often spending twelve hours a day working in the Company's growing Havana offices or making speeches in support of the tunnel's construction. These speeches smoothed the way for the passage of the Tunnel Treaty in Cuba, where Aguero, despite his past as a backer of Batista, had become greatly popular among Cuba's new generation of middle-class workers. These were men and women who had grown up entirely under a democratic government, and for whom "Batista" was merely a name in the history books, one their parents discussed in the same way they talked about walking to school. To them, Aguero and the tunnel became a symbol of the new Cuba, a country equal to or even greater than their neighbor to the north, the United States. To their parents, the United States had always been "the boss," home of the tourists who supported the Cuban economy. For the new generation, the United States was a "brother," home to branches of Cuban corporations, the place where many Cubans went to be educated, and merely another country, with no negative connotation.

This trend only would become apparent well after Aguero's death in 1997, but throughout the 1980s, he became its beneficiary. As more and more Cubans of the new generation became eligible to vote (the legal voting age had been lowered to 18 in 1975), they put more and more pro-tunnel legislators into office. These politicians saw an advantage in the tunnel's construction, and they would prove to be some of Aguero's strongest supporters when the tunnel's fate seemed uncertain.

In the United States, however, there was none of this emotion. That country, still recovering from the political and economic setbacks of the 1970s, largely viewed the tunnel as a needless expense, Reagan and Gonzales's claims of "Rebuilding America" aside. In order to get the political backing necessary for the approval of the Tunnel Treaty, several compromises had to be made. The most important of these was the requirement that all pieces of the tunnel had to be manufactured in the United States. This was done to contest the idea put forth by tunnel opponents that Cuba would be benefiting more from the construction costs than the United States. Furthermore, several factories in politically important states were recommended to manufacture tunnel sections and components. To assuage Cuban protests, additional clauses required 75% of the ships used in the construction of the tunnel to be Cuban-flagged and required 60% of the personnel working on the project to be hired in Cuba.

These and other negotiations went slowly, and it wasn't until November 1981 that the treaty was submitted to the Senate for ratification. On November 16, 1981, the 97th U.S. Congress, by a narrow margin, voted to grant its advice and consent on the subject of the Cuban-American Tunnel Treaty. A beaming Vice President Gonzales presided over the vote in his ceremonial position. American newspapers hailed "the father of the tunnel," as he was called. The Cuban view that Aguero was the true "father" of the tunnel was not widely considered.

That minor controversy was smoothed over by the approval of the Tunnel Treaty. In a Thanksgiving Day ceremony, President Reagan and the President of Cuba signed the treaty into law for both countries. In attendance were Vice President Gonzales, Andres Aguero, and representatives from virtually every major construction company in the world. Almost everyone present had immense interest in the next phase of the tunnel project -- the bid for the contract to build the tunnel. The potential rewards were immense, but so were the risks. The winning bidder would receive a 60-year monopoly on tunnel construction across the Florida Strait, a boon potentially worth billions of dollars. But in order to receive that boon, the bidder first had to jump the hurdles of fundraising and building the tunnel, and these obstacles seemed immense, even to the world's largest construction and investment companies.

Three months after the signing of the Tunnel Treaty, a request for bids and proposals was submitted by the Joint American Tunnel Administration Commission (JATAC). Potential bidders would have 18 months from the date of the request (February 27, 1982) to submit their sealed bid proposals to the Commission. In that time, prospective bidders would have to gather information, create a rough plan of construction, and find financing. The size of the project was immense. Media commentators compared the scale of the problem to that facing the builders of the Suez Canal, the builders of the Pyramids, or any number of other great construction projects throughout history. They were always quick to point out, however, that none of the projects -- with the exception of the Great Wall of China -- approached the size of the planned tunnel and that this would be the second-largest single human-built object in history.

Many comparisons were made to the Seikan Tunnel project, which was about to break ground in Japan with the goal of connecting the Home Islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. Even more comparisons were drawn to the long-imagined Channel Tunnel in Europe. That tunnel was still in the distant planning stages after having been cancelled in the mid-1970s as a result of Prime Minister Harold Wilson's cost-cutting. Thanks to the publicity surrounding the Florida Strait Tunnel, that formerly moribund project had begun to gain steam once more, and Britain and France were talking about a Channel Tunnel Treaty along the lines of the Cuban-American treaty. But both the Seikan and Chunnel were still far from reality and each plan was still less than a third of the length of even the shortest potential Florida Strait Tunnel.

Estimates of the total cost of the project ranged from a conservative $10 billion to a monstrous $60 billion. According to the Tunnel Treaty, one-third of the cost of construction would be paid by each contributor to the project: the builder, the American government, and the Cuban government. Both the American and Cuban contributions, however, would take the form of interest-free loans to the tunnel builder, to be repaid by the end of the 60-year monopoly period. This 2/3 contribution by the two governments would only count for the first $50 billion of costs. Anything beyond this wallet-smashing cost would have to be borne by private investors, who would also contribute the remaining third of the project's bill.

Initially, three corporations received the bulk of the media coverage surrounding the "race for the Tunnel," as it was termed in the national media of both Cuba and the United States. The fact that it was in no way a race was conveniently overlooked in the competitive spirit. The company perceived most likely to "win the race" was American construction and energy conglomerate Bechtel, which had performed extensive private surveying of the Florida Strait beyond that provided in the 1978 U.S. Government survey and other minor surveys conducted since. In addition, Bechtel embarked on an extensive public relations campaign to convince the public that it could provide a "permanent, quality link between the United States and Cuba."

The corporation seen as Bechtel's primary competitor in the "race" was the American Bridge Company, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1900, the ABC had, by 1982, been involved in most of the biggest transportation construction projects in the United States during the last half of the 20th Century. While rival Bechtel could claim a history as a prime contractor for the Hoover Dam -- President Reagan's favorite metaphor for the building of the tunnel -- American Bridge could proudly proclaim New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Orinoco Bridge in Venezuela, the Sears Tower, the Boeing 747 Assembly Building, and the Louisiana Superdome among its accomplishments. Insiders privately considered American Bridge to be the front-runner in the competition. After all, it already had extensive experience building large infrastructure projects, many of them in deep water. For the construction of the Florida Strait Tunnel, American Bridge promised to bring in miniature submarines with the capability of descending to the bottom of the mile-deep strait.

The third corporation to receive a great deal of media coverage during the 18 months of the bidding process was not widely considered to be a front-runner. Thanks to the reputation of Andres Aguero, however, the Florida Strait Tunnel Company was never far from the minds of those who followed the progress of the tunnel project. In Cuba, Aguero was hailed as a national hero and covered as such in the national media. His reputation barely mentioned a sentence in most American newspapers covering the tunnel-building project. In Cuba, Aguero was a masterful fundraiser, gathering promises of loans fro Cuban banks totaling over $3 billion in the first month following the bid announcement. However, in the United States, Aguero was stonewalled. Almost no American bank would give an ear to the strange man from Cuba who tried to get them to pledge immense sums of money to a wild project.

Investors' skepticism was perhaps well-founded. Of the 17 companies that would eventually submit bids for the project, the Florida Strait Tunnel Company was by far the smallest. While Bechtel could boast over 30,000 employees worldwide, and American Bridge could list over 10,000 American employees, the Tunnel Company employed fewer than 100 people at the time of the request for bids in February 1982. As to sales -- it had none. What little operating capital it enjoyed was courtesy of donations from tunnel supporters and the sale of company shares in late 1981. With those limited funds, Florida Tunnel struggled to design and raise the money for the world's largest construction project.

The stress of Florida Tunnel's uphill struggle took its toll on the 78-year-old Aguero. Stonewalled by American investors, in six months he managed to extract promises of only $500 million from various banks and investment groups. In Cuba over the same period, he managed to get pledges of a billion additional dollars. But the Cuban well was running dry. As successful as Aguero had been in getting loans from Cuban banks, there were only so many banks with the willingness and capability to provide the multi-million-dollar promises that were needed to finance the tunnel. The economic resources of Cuba, no matter how deeply they were tapped, simply couldn't match those of even a small fraction of what the United States could bring to bear in terms of investment. In December 1982, the fundraising trail struck down Aguero. Admitted to Hospital Clínico Quirúrgico with sharp stomach pain, Aguero was diagnosed with stress-induced bleeding ulcers. With less than eight months remaining to complete a bid proposal, the hopes of the Florida Strait Tunnel Company appeared to be sunk.

Aguero had been the company's most prominent member and most capable fundraiser. With the announcement that he would be confined to bed for several months, several investors withdrew their pledges of support. New investors were hard to come by, particularly with the widespread coverage the Cuban media gave to Aguero's illness. As 1982 turned into 1983, Aguero was receiving daily blood transfusions to replace what was lost through his bleeding ulcers. At its darkest hour, and thanks to investors dropping their promises, the Florida Strait Tunnel Company had barely one week's operating capital remaining when help arrived from an unlikely source. As Aguero lay recuperating in his hospital bed, he was visited by representatives from the American Bridge Company. With them, they brought an unexpected offer -- a merger.

The two dark-suited Americans that visited laid out their proposal: In exchange for selling their shares in the Florida Strait Tunnel Company, shareholders would receive a portion of the profits of the completed tunnel. American Bridge would gain access to the extensive research and planning done by the Tunnel Company as well absorbing the Company's experienced stable of engineers, including Alan Grant, the engineer who had first proposed the tunnel design, and Aguero's two Cuban engineers, the longest-serving members of the Company other than Aguero himself. As part of the deal, Aguero would be named the chairman of the project, bringing his immense prestige in Cuba to the service of American Bridge, which, while successful in gaining backers in the United States, had thus far been unsuccessful in attracting Cuban interest in its plan. Aguero, wheelchair-bound due to weakness from blood loss, contemplated the matter for five minutes. Then he turned down the two men cold. He had not spent half his lifetime working on the tunnel, not seen it through the dark hours, to now sell his plan to a bunch of Yanqui industrialists. No. He would go down fighting, if he had to go down at all. It was his dream, and he was in charge of it. No one else.

Having met a roadblock in the form of Aguero, American Bridge tried an end run around him. They spoke with Alan Grant, then Aguero's two original engineers. They talked with the Florida Strait Tunnel Company's backers, and to the company's other employees. But it all boiled down to Aguero himself. He had kept enough of the company's shares to block any potential move in favor of a merger, and so he had to be in favor of the move or it would not happen. For three weeks, representatives from American Bridge, Alan Grant, and what seemed like every employee the Tunnel Company had cycled through Aguero's hospital room in an effort to convince him to change his mind, but he would not budge. In desperation, Grant called Vice President Gonzales in Washington. Gonzales flew to Havana, ostensibly on a friendly visit to Cuba. In a meeting together with Grant and Aguero's two engineers, they forced Aguero to see the truth. He had been away from the company for too long, had not seen the money slowly running out despite pledges of billion-dollar loans, pledges that could not be collected unless the company won the tunnel contract. Only when Grant showed him the red-lined balance sheets did Aguero change his mind and agree to American Bridge's purchase of his company. "So this is the end?" he reportedly asked Gonzales. "No, my friend, it is the beginning." Gonzales replied. And so it was.

On September 1, 1983, 17 companies turned in sealed envelopes to the Joint American Tunnel Administration Commission. Over the next week, the six members of the Commission (3 American and 3 Cuban) examined each proposal and bid for feasibility and adherence to the bid regulations. Though the lowest bid would ordinarily be accepted, if a proposal bypassed any of the major requirements, it would be rejected even if the bid was low. The bidding process received a shock of attention on the fourth day of deliberations when British construction company Balfour Beatty announced that it would be withdrawing its bid in an effort to concentrate on the planned Channel Tunnel, which had just been declared a major priority of the British government. Following the withdrawal of Balfour Beatty, which had been considered one of the likely winners of the bidding process, the tunnel returned again to the headlines. After 18 months of behind-the-scenes planning, the tunnel had faded from the media's attention. Engineering diagrams and budget negotiations, no matter how fascinating they might have been to the people involved, simply didn't generate interesting stories.

For the last three days of deliberations, media commentators speculated wildly about who might emerge with the single largest non-military government contract since the creation of the Interstate System. Would it be Bechtel, the industry giant? Could a resurgent American Bridge group emerge the victor? Or would one of the 14 remaining underdog candidates come up with the lowest bid? On September 8, North America had its answer. With a bid of $37.4 billion, the American Bridge Company was awarded the contract to build the Florida Strait tunnel.

Coming in second was Bechtel, with a bid of $49.3 billion. Other companies' bids were above the $50 billion mark, thanks in part to the need to build the companies' infrastructure before even starting construction. In the years that followed, multiple accusations of corporate espionage, vote-rigging, and other underhanded tactics were levied against American Bridge. Nothing was ever proven, and several libel lawsuits on behalf of the company put an end to many of the accusations. Ironically, it was later revealed that Balfour Beatty had entered a bid below that of American Bridge, and had the bid been upheld, a British company would have been the builder of the Florida Strait Tunnel connecting the United States to Cuba.

With the contracts signed and American Bridge having ended the anticipation over the picking of a contractor, the tunnel project once again returned to obscurity, at least as far as the newspaper front pages were concerned. For the engineers and employees of the American Bridge Corporation, the real work had only just begun. With Andres Aguero only barely back on his feet from his prolonged hospital stay and still learning the ropes in his position as the official chairman of American Bridge's tunnel group, much of the work was shouldered by his assistants. The tunnel group was the portion of American Bridge devoted to the Florida Strait Tunnel, and as the project grew in complexity, it had grown in proportion. By the time news of the successful bid reached American Bridge's headquarters in Pittsburgh, virtually every person employed by the company was also a member of the tunnel group. To ease coordination, American bridge opened offices in Key West, Miami, Havana, and Hershey, Cuba, which was to be the site of the Cuba end of the tunnel.

Even as orders for equipment and supplies were placed from these offices, the tunnel's design continued to change. American Bridge engineers had initially designed the tunnel as an automobile route carrying four lanes of divided traffic beneath the Florida Strait. It was a design that followed those of other American Bridge projects, and reflected the American company's history building road networks. A road tunnel had several problems when applied to the enormous distance of the Florida Strait, however, problems that could only be resolved with expensive solutions. The first problem to be addressed was that of ventilation. Four lanes of automobile traffic would generate an immense amount of exhaust, and that would have to be removed lest the tunnel turn into a 90-mile-long gas chamber before the first car crossed. The solution American Bridge engineers came up with involved a series of 30 enormous ventilators tied to buoyant, floating exhaust stacks. The fact that these would be hideously vulnerable to hurricanes or other storms was ignored in the haste to get a plan ready. In addition, the simple mechanics of operating a 90-mile highway would also have to be dealt with. How would the tunnel handle car accidents at the halfway point? What would happen when a car ran out of gas?

These and other problems multiplied exponentially, helping lead to American Bridge's decision to acquire the Florida Strait Tunnel Company, which had managed to come up with a solution -- not using cars at all. Instead, the Tunnel Company's design used a train shuttle service, thus avoiding all the problems of automobile exhaust, cars breaking down, and human error. To be sure, the train design would require the construction of two massive terminals, creating a whole new set of problems in the land-starved Florida Keys, home of the northern end of the tunnel. But the Tunnel Company had a solution for that problem as well. The U.S. Navy had announced in 1980 that it would be closing its naval air station on the island of Boca Chica. The island would be a perfect location for a terminal -- if the land could be acquired before news of the company's interest blew prices sky-high.

By the time of American Bridge's winning bid, the Tunnel Company design had won out over the auto tunnel put forth by American Bridge's own designers, thus enabling the company to turn in the winning bid. But there had not been enough time to finalize the design, and so throughout the last three months of 1983, in drafting rooms in Pittsburgh and Miami engineers labored to complete the design first imagined by Alan Grant nearly a decade previously. Though the details still were not known, initial work continued. In November 1983, the U.S. Navy held a public auction for its Boca Chica property. Only the portion of the base south of U.S. 1 was for sale, but this was the exact portion required for the envisioned terminal. Through third parties and secret intermediaries, American bridge sent representatives to participate in the auction for the property. Though successful, they paid a high price for the terminal's eventual location -- $47 million. Several developers had had their eyes on the island as a potential resort destination along the route of the eventual undersea railroad, and only the deep pockets of American Bridge allowed it to eventually triumph. Though the company attempted to keep its purchase a secret, word eventually leaked out via a story in a local newspaper, causing a massive spike in property values throughout the Lower Keys.

The purchasing of land for the Cuba end of the tunnel was a far smoother process. The town of Hershey, Cuba had earned its unique name as the headquarters of the Hershey Chocolate Company's cocoa plantations in Cuba. A massive rail network had been laid through the town, and cocoa packaging plants still dotted the landscape, though many laid dormant at the time of the tunnel's arrival, courtesy of the Hershey company's sale of the plantation in 1948. The site of the Cuban terminal as well as ample land for employee housing was purchased for a paltry $1.5 million. The residents of the small town were only too happy to welcome American Bridge representatives, who they hoped would revitalize their small town, largely bypassed by the casino and tourist economic explosion of the 1960s and 1970s. As in the Keys, land values in and around Hershey rose dramatically after the purchase, but unlike in the Keys, the spike was limited by the amount of land available.

At sea, American Bridge began assembling a massive construction fleet. Most of the ships, as required by the JATAC, were Cuban-flagged vessels hired from Havana, Guantanamo, or any of a number of Cuban ports. These would not just be needed to lay tunnel segments and set concrete weights, but also to supply the vessels that would be doing those very things. The centerpiece of the flotilla was none other than the infamous Glomar Explorer, built by Hughes Aerospace at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency in order to recover a sunken Soviet missile submarine. In the wake of that mission's failure and subsequent revelation by the Los Angeles Times, the ship had been mothballed by the U.S. Navy and kept in its Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet. Purchased by American Bridge in October, 1983, the ship immediately entered drydock for extensive modifications in order to better serve its new role positioning and manipulating the enormous steel tubes that would make up the tunnel. Though the ship came cheap -- only $10 million from a government eager to offload the ship, the modifications and upgrades were to cost more than $75 million.

This massive expense was still a minor cost when compared to the complete cost of the project, however. In order to fulfill the total bid of $37.4 billion, American Bridge and Andres Aguero had to negotiate a labyrinth of contracts and requirements. Just over one-third of that total -- $12.7 billion -- had been loaned by a consortium of banks, private investors, and private individuals. This was the starting capital for the project, and as soon as the bid was accepted and the contract signed by the JATAC and American Bridge, the timer started ticking on the tunnel project. For every day that construction was delayed, the cost in owed interest and lost revenue would amount to over $1 million. The much-touted interest-free government loans, which had been the center of opposition to the tunnel project as an example of profligate government spending, would not come into play until certain benchmarks in the tunnel construction had been met. Much like the plan that had financed the United States' first transcontinental railroad, American Bridge would receive a set amount in interest-free loans for every mile of tunnel completed. For the first 50 miles south from Boca Chica, U.S.-backed loans would be issued. For the first 50 miles north from Hershey, Cuban-backed loans would be issued. But until a design was finalized, no manufacturing of tunnel segments could begin, no portions of tunnel could be completed, and no government loans could be collected.

On January 23, 1984, the first of those roadblocks was removed with the freezing of the tunnel design. The tunnel itself was deceptively simple in design. Of course, the devil was in the details. Each 200-foot tunnel section consists of several parts. The first of these was the outer hull, designed to be water-tight and strong enough to resist the water pressure at 95 feet (the tunnel's depth below sea level). Functioning exactly like the outer pressure hull on a submarine, each section contains ballast tanks, two railroad tubes, a maintenance tube, and multiple pumps and cable and pipe lines. The ballast tanks, located between the outer tunnel and the railroad tubes, are the most critical portion of each tunnel segment. They provide the buoyancy that keeps the tunnel from sinking to the bottom of the Strait, and keep it held tight by the stabilizing cables. Contrary to popular belief, the tunnel is not held up by the cables, but by the buoyancy provided by the ballast tanks.

A pump is located in each of the 8 separate tanks in each tunnel section. They take up the entire inner surface of the outer shell of the tunnel, and in effect create the inner hull of the tunnel shell. Each of the tanks can be flooded or emptied as needed, but most are typically kept empty in order to maximize the amount of buoyancy. The tanks at the bottom of the tunnel shell are an exception to this rule, as they are usually partially filled in order to provide stability for the tunnel and minimize the tunnel shell's tendency to roll when not weighted properly. The only time the ballast tanks were fully flooded was during the emplacement process, when the sections' normal buoyancy had to be overcome in order to place them at the proper depth. Once placed, welded to existing sections, and connected to the cable and weight system, the ballast tanks would be fully vented for normal operation.

Within the inner hull formed by the ballast tanks are the three transportation tubes. Electrified railroad tracks run through the two largest tubes, which are connected to the tunnel shell by a series of shock absorbers designed to minimize the stresses on the tunnel shell and the welds connecting tunnel sections. Spaced regularly along the tunnel are crossover pipes, which connect the two railroad tubes and relieve the air pressure trains generate as they travel through the tunnel. As trains travel through the tunnel, there is insufficient room in the confines of the railroad tubes for air to get around the rapidly-moving trains, and so the crossover pipes are needed to relieve this air pressure before it causes damage to the train or railroad tube.

Between the two railroad tubes is the maintenance tube, which is kept at a higher pressure than the rest of the tunnel in order to provide a refuge area in the event of major problems. Regularly-spaced pressure doors provide easy access to the two railroad tubes and the air spaces between the tunnel shell and transportation tubes. These air spaces are inspected regularly for leaks and provide access to the electrical cables, pumps, and everything else critical to the operation of the tunnel. Unlike the two railroad tubes, no tracks run through the maintenance tube. Tunnel employees instead use specially-designed electric cars to travel throughout the 90-mile length of the maintenance tube.

Also included in the 98-mile length of the tunnel are six switching points, which allow trains to cross from one train tube to the other in the event that a section of track needs to be shut down for maintenance. They are spaced evenly -- one for every 15 miles of track -- and are some of the largest wholly-underwater structures in the world. Each is approximately twice the size of a normal tunnel section, and this fact caused no shortage of difficulties during the emplacement process.

Over 2,300 regular sections would be needed to complete the tunnel, and even if something went wrong with any individual tunnel section, the design was redundant enough to compensate. Should a tunnel segment suffer a leak and be completely filled with water, the ballast tanks would continue to provide more than enough buoyancy to remain in place. If the buoyancy tanks were ruptured, the tunnel section would still be supported by other tunnel sections nearby. According to the design, every ballast tank in five consecutive sections would need to be ruptured in order to create enough negative buoyancy to cause damage to the tunnel. However, an event that could cause damage that extensive would likely destroy those portions of the tunnel entirely.

In the March, 1984 issue of Popular Mechanics, the tunnel design was hailed as the greatest engineering breakthrough since the Pyramids. The claim was repeated by other trade publications and was even taken up by President Reagan in his campaign for re-election. It was a claim that Gary Hart, the Democratic candidate for President, found impossible to match. Reagan's economic plans, though criticized for the amount of money they spent, were largely successful in establishing a rapid recovery for the national economy. Hart found an easier target in Reagan's military policy, which he criticized for being overly antagonistic and reversing the denete that had begun with Kennedy and resulted in multiple agreements limiting the nuclear arms race.

But for the workers of American Bridge and for the members of JATAC, the events surrounding the American presidential campaign faded into the background as work on the tunnel went forward. In April, Andres Augero made the biggest decision of his still-young career as head of American Bridge's tunnel department as he signed contracts with the subcontractors who would be building the tunnel shells. The decision was enormous in both financial and physical terms -- the tunnel shells would constitute the largest and most visible portion of the project, and would consist of 3/5 of the total cost of the project. The problems involved with such a large series of subcontracts were exacerbated by competition from President Reagan's military buildup, which included the construction of two new classes of submarines -- the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, and the Los Angeles-class attack submarine. As tunnel sections were extremely similar in structure to submarines, throughout the 1970s it had been thought that the construction of tunnel sections could easily be done at shipyards in Connecticut, Virginia, and California. But by 1984, the shipyards that had lain dormant throughout the 1970s were flush with new orders from the U.S. Navy.

Due to that fact, American Bridge was forced to sign contracts with shipyards in places like Evansville, Indiana, Seattle, Washington, and Bangor, Maine. Places that had never seen a submarine before now found themselves building dozens of hollow tunnel sections. This forced American Bridge to pay higher prices, due to the expense involved in transporting the sections down the Atlantic coast, through the Panama Canal, or down the Mississippi River. It also forced Aguero to sign contracts with less-than-reputable contractors. This resulted in several tunnel sections being built to unsafe standards. One contractor in New Orleans was later accused of massive design violations and cutting corners in order to save money. By 1992, no fewer than 24 sections had to be physically cut out from already-finished portions of the tunnel and replaced at massive expense. The resulting lawsuit cost the subcontractor several hundred million dollars in damages, eventually forcing the company into bankruptcy.

These were isolated incidents, however. Fewer than one percent of the tunnel segments were voided due to cause, a remarkable percentage considering the number of subcontractors, tunnel segments, and the extremely difficult circumstances under which they were built and put into place. But that was in the future -- in April, 1984, the delivery of the first section was still eight months away. Until that time, there were more than enough problems to go around.

The first of these was the preparation of the sites in Hershey and Boca Chica Key. Vertical shafts were drilled down 150 through rock-hard coral and sediment scarcely thicker than the water that would support the tunnel shells. Coral dust proved to be spectacularly erosive, destroying drill bits that should have lasted 500 feet in only 50. Tunnel Boring Machines, like those being used for the Seikan tunnel in Japan and planned for the Channel Tunnel in Europe, were off limits due to the unstable ground. At Boca Chica, coral could give way to pockets of water-filled sediment without warning, and the problem would only grow worse once the shafts were completed and the drillers began working towards the sea. To avoid the inevitable flooding that would take place when the tunnelers reached the ocean, giant end-caps were dropped into place at the approximate spots where the tunnels would reach the sea and switch to the free-floating tunnel segments. Constructed of the first two completed tunnel segments, the caps were dropped to the appropriate depths and pushed into the sediment. Divers were then sent down to dig forward until reaching coral. A water-tight seal could then be formed between the caps and the rock. After that, it was a matter of merely constructing a water-tight connection between the shaft and the end cap. The entire process would not be complete until June 1988, by which time plenty of free-floating tunnel sections were available to connect to the excavated portions.

In the meantime, American Tunnel's efforts at sea were focused on preparing the concrete seabed counterweights and steel cables that would restrain the buoyant tunnel sections. Left free to float, the tunnel sections would rise to the surface, vulnerable to the elements and blocking shipping traffic through the Florida Strait. To counteract the designed buoyancy of the tunnel sections, each was designed to be attached to a series of concrete weights connected to the tunnel by a steel-cable cradle. Beginning in May, 1984, the first concrete blocks began to arrive in Miami. As they weighed in at 20 tons apiece, positioning the weights was no small task, especially considering that most would need to be positioned at a depth of 4,000 feet or more. The flexibility of the steel cables used meant that the weights did not need to be placed with enormous precision, but though the tunnel workers were spared that difficulty, an enormous task still faced them. It was the equivalent of lowering a car through a pea-soup fog from a helicopter hovering at a height twice that of the Sears Tower and placing it in a single parking spot.

In the planning stages, American Bridge engineers had suggested the use of miniature submersibles, such as the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin, commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1964 and operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. In trials, however, the minisubs proved to lack the engine power and cargo capacity to reliably transport and manipulate the 20-ton concrete blocks. Even the nuclear-powered NR-1, had it been available, lacked the need power and the deep-diving capability to reach the deeper portions of the tunnel route. With minisubs not an option, Aguero was forced to approve more traditional methods of deep-water construction. With the Glomar Explorer in dry dock until 1985, the interim tunnel-laying ship Christopher Columbus was pressed into service placing the concrete weights.

The Columbus, a converted freighter modified in a Cuban shipyard by American Bridge to work on the tunnel project, had originally been intended to serve as the Glomar Explorer's counterpart at sea, laying tunnel sections from the Cuban coast northward while the Explorer worked from Boca Chica southward. However, the delays in finalizing the tunnel design and creating the tunnel sections, coupled with the Explorer's longer-than-expected stay in dry dock meant the Columbus's crew cooled their heels in Havana as the days passed. Ordered to Miami in June, the crew of the Columbus found an ample stack of concrete weights awaiting them in the Port of Miami. After taking the weights aboard, the ship set sail for a position just south of Sand Key, the point where the tunnel's hundred-foot depth would emerge into open water after digging below the reef south of Key West. The work progressed surprisingly well for the crew of the Columbus, and they were able to lay several dozen weights per day with remarkable accuracy after the normal difficulties associated with a new job.

As the ocean floor began to drop off and the waters of the Florida Strait deepened, however, the rate of progress slowed to a crawl. Where the Columbus had been able to lay up to 100 weights per day in shallower water, the deeper portions of the Strait challenged the Columbus's crane operators and riggers. The Strait's currents, coupled with the growing distance between the Columbus and the seafloor meant that any error was magnified as the water became deeper. With four weights needed for each of the tunnel's 2,369 tunnel sections, even a short delay in the process would be magnified by the number of times it needed to be repeated. By the beginning of 1985, the Columbus was barely managing to correctly place a single weight daily.

The solution to this problem came when planners reexamined the original strategy of laying the weights with minisubs. Though those vehicles still lacked the capability to transport the weights by themselves, the minisubs could still manipulate the weights into a more precise position than the Columbus could on its own. In the spring of 1985, American Tunnel began to lease a pair of minisubs for work on the tunnel project. As the Columbus lowered each weight several thousand feet to the bottom of the Florida Strait, a minisub would be at the bottom, guiding it into place and counteracting the effect of currents and other problems that might arise during the trip to the seafloor. By providing a pair (or several) of human eyes on the seafloor, American Tunnel also avoided several problems that had arisen or would arise during the tunnel's construction.

By using a minisub, American Tunnel surveyors could avoid problems associated with seafloor obstructions and obstacles, such as boulders. In one notable incident, the Sea Cliff, one of the four different subs hired by the company, discovered several WWII-era munitions, probably dumped by the U.S. Navy, directly in the projected path of the tunnel route. After consulting the Navy, the decision was made to dispose of the munitions via explosives. In other instances, the minisubs discovered seafloor obstacles like boulder fields or terrain changes that the sonar surveys or underwater cameras had not been able to distinguish. By using the Sea Cliff and other submarines to maneuver the weights around these obstacles, valuable time was saved and the pace of construction greatly increased. By late 1985, the Columbus was laying concrete weights at a vastly increased speed. By the fall of 1988, all 9,476 weights along the entire 90-mile length of submarine tunnel were in place and the Columbus had been reassigned to its originally-designed purpose -- laying tunnel sections.

The introduction of minisubs on the tunnel project also had effects beyond the tunnel project. From the late 1980s through the mid-90s, the United States experienced an explosion in popular interest in submarines and undersea exploration. The beginnings of minisub involvement on the tunnel project greatly effected Dr. Robert Ballard's search for and discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1986, and assisted the growth of treasure hunting and the search for shipwrecks. In popular media, the discovery of the Titanic and the work on the tunnel inspired television shows such as SeaQuest and the new Flipper series. Minisubs would continue to be involved in the project through its completion, having been reassigned to cable work following the completion of the laying of the weights. Even today, submarines prove to be a crucial part of the tunnel maintenance process, inspecting and repairing portions of steel cable far beyond the reach of surface-based divers. In 2002, the Tunnel Authority went so far as to purchase outright the Habana, a 50-foot minisub capable of reaching every portion of the Florida Strait's depths and assigned to observe and maintain the tunnel as needed.

The main duty of the Habana is to keep an eye on the miles of steel cables that restrain the tunnel and keep it from floating to the surface. Because they are perpetually immersed in seawater, they are extremely vulnerable to corrosion, and must be repeatedly monitored and maintained as needed. As with the building of the tunnel shells, the steel cables had to be manufactured at several locations across the United States. According to the design, each tunnel section was restrained four times, connected by cable to the concrete weights laid by the Christopher Columbus. The cables connect to the sections at the "corners," so much as a ovoid cylinder can be said to have corners. With nearly 9,500 weights connecting to approximately 2,400 tunnel sections, an immense amount of cable had to be created. Nearly 10,000 miles of it, in fact.

Steel cable wasn't a new invention by any means, nor was it new to the engineers of American Bridge. They had planned and built the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York City, which was the world's longest suspension bridge until surpassed by the Humber Bridge in Britain in 1981. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge used over 143,000 miles of steel wire over its mile-long spans, and the construction of the Florida Strait Tunnel would surpass even this enormous amount by a fair margin.

To create steel cable, strands of steel wire are repeatedly wound to create small cables. These cables are then bundled together to create larger cables, and so forth. The whole assembly is then usually shrouded in a cylindrical housing in order to reduce corrosion. The technique was created in Germany during the 1830s and used in bridges and construction in the United States since the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge. American Bridge engineers were extremely familiar with steel cable's flexibility and strength, and planned from the beginning to incorporate it into the design. There were two problems with the use of steel cable in the tunnel, however: scale and corrosion.

The scale of the project meant that over 38 million miles of steel wire would be needed to complete the cable girdles restraining the 90-mile length of the tunnel. 5,000 individual strands of wire would compose each cable, meaning that as the tunnel crossed the deepest portions of the Strait, a single tunnel section would be attached to over 20,000 miles of wire -- one-seventh as much as used in the entire Verrazano-Narrows project. Engineers would later compare this manufacturing process to those that manufactured the Apollo spacecraft and the Freedom Space Station. From the time the first orders were placed in July 1984, the steel cable-manufacturing facility of American Cable and Wire in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, went on a full three-shift non-stop manufacturing schedule. It would not stop operating this schedule for 11 years.

The situation was similar at forges across the midwest. In places like Gary, Indiana, and Toledo, Ohio, wire and cable manufacturers received contracts and subcontracts that would sustain them for a full decade. To meet the demand in raw steel, companies like U.S. Steel received orders for tons of raw material. Historians today credit much of the survival of America's steel industry to the flood of orders that resulted from the demand for millions of miles of steel wire. The money companies like U.S. Steel made on the orders for the Florida Strait Tunnel allowed them to modernize and compete with the Asian and European steel companies that had taken over the demand for automobile steel.

The problem of corrosion was almost as enormous as the problems of manufacturing so much steel wire. The cables restraining the tunnel would be immersed in some of the most corrosive fluid known to man -- oxygen-rich salt water. One weak spot in the anti-corrosion coating applied to each bit of steel wire could cause the wire to rust and break. One wire breaking could cause a cable to fail and weaken the overall structure of the tunnel. One cable in and of itself couldn't cause damage to the tunnel, nor would several failing in succession. Every cable on five consecutive tunnel sections would have to fail before the buoyancy of the sections would begin to crack the welds holding them together. The odds of 20 cables failing at any given time was microscopic, but in order for those odds to remain microscopic, the cables would have to be regularly maintained and examined for corrosion. In addition to the anti-corrosion coatings applied to each bit of steel wire, cable, and the tunnel shell itself, American Bridge engineers used a new technology called Impressed Current Catholic Protection.

Impressed Current Catholic Protection (ICCP for short), involves small amounts of electric current being passed through the material to be protected. This electricity will draw any potential corrosion into replaceable anodes of highly-corrosive material. These anodes absorb the corrosion of the structure into themselves, and therefore must be replaced as needed. Though this replacement can be expensive, it is far cheaper than the cost of replacing a corroded specialty part, or running the risk of a failure in the tunnel. To protect the whole 90-mile length of the Florida Strait tunnel, one sacrificial anode has been placed on every other tunnel section. Due to the large area that must be protected, the anodes corrode on a monthly basis and must be replaced as part of the regular maintenance schedule.

The steel cable stage of the project was the second most expensive portion of construction for American Bridge. Of the anticipated $37.4 billion cost, $14 billion was slated for the forging of the steel cables. Construction of the tunnel sections themselves was only planned to cost $18 billion. During the 1984 American presidential campaign, the enormous size and cost of the steel cables was seized upon by anti-tunnel politicians as an example of the impossibility of the project. One fact particularly repeated was the notion that laid end-to-end, the wire strands of the tunnel's steel cables would reach over a third of the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Used to justify the impossibility and waste of the tunnel, President Reagan turned that argument on its head by using it as an example of human ingenuity and triumph. American voters evidently agreed with Reagan, who won a large victory in the November election over Gary Hart.

Five months later and one month following his second inauguration, President Reagan and Vice-President Gonzales were on hand for a gala ceremony in the Florida Strait just south of Sand Key as the first tunnel section was lowered into place. With the Glomar Explorer finally arrived from its West Coast refit and ready to handle the first of the newly-manufactured tunnel sections, all was in place for an enormous celebration. On April 17, 1985, that's exactly what happened. The tunnel's pioneers were all present: Carlito Gonzales, Andres Aguero, Alan Grant, President Reagan, President Salazar of Cuba, the members of the JATAC, and most of American Bridge's board of directors. Also present in force was the media, which covered the event from every conceivable angle. Speeches by the dignitaries were followed by the breaking of a ceremonial bottle of champagne on the tunnel section. Difficulties with the Explorer's equipment meant that the section couldn't actually be lowered into the water, but that only slightly dampened the holiday mood for those present. It would be the first and only time that all of the tunnel's organizers were in one place.

The next day, the ballast tanks of the section were flooded and the section was lowered into place with the Explorer's enormous grappling claw. The ends of the steel cables, which had been threaded through grooves on the sides, top, and bottom of the section, were attached to the concrete weights below the tunnel by divers wielding enormous bolts. Thanks to the relatively shallow depth of the first section, the weights were relatively close to the tunnel shell itself, and could be attached to the cables by divers from the surface, rather than minisubs, as would have to be the case in deeper water. The entire process of flooding, lowering, securing the cables, and pumping out the section's ballast tanks took 35 hours, and it wasn't until the afternoon of April 19th that the section was completely secure. Aboard the Glomar Explorer and other ships in the construction flotilla, engineers and tunnel workers held their breaths. Would the section hold? Would it rip loose from its moorings?

As the hours passed and divers made repeated inspections of the section, many of those fears were put to rest. One hundred feet below the surface of the Florida Strait, the tunnel section rested as solid as a rock. The two-foot chop on the surface of the Strait had absolutely no effect one hundred feet down, and it rested solidly for a full week as divers and engineers measured and re-measured the stresses on the tunnel before the go-ahead was given to lower the next section and weld it to the first. Of particular concern were the steel cables that secured the section to the seabed. The four cable lengths were joined in two A-shaped sections at the forward and rear of the tunnel section, joining on the top of the tunnel and having a short length of cable spliced below the tunnel section in order to reduce the tunnel's potential to roll. Tension measurements taken at different points along the cables indicated forces similar to those that had been measured in a prototype section that had been built off the shore of New Jersey and sunk in late 1982, even before American Tunnel had been awarded the contract for construction. Though the design had changed greatly in the three years since, the results were largely the same.

On April 26, the second tunnel section was lowered into position by the grappler aboard the Glomar Explorer. The process was much the same as what had happened two weeks prior, but without the fanfare accompanying the first section. In many ways, the installation of the second and third sections was far more important than the first. While the first section had been merely a matter of flooding ballast tanks, securing the section with the anchored steel cables, and emptying the ballast tanks again, additional sections added difficulties associated with welding and connecting those sections to those already laid. These difficulties were partially offset by decisions made in the design stages of the tunnel plan.

By working southward from the first tunnel section, American Bridge avoided the problems that would arise from connecting free-floating sections to sections drilled through the sea floor. The relatively shallow 100-foot depth of the sections, while deep enough to avoid wave action from even the worst hurricanes, was still shallow enough for commercial divers to easily access the sections without the need for long decompression stops. This fact greatly assisted in the welding of the tunnel sections and the finishing of the tunnel interiors, which was done almost entirely from divers acting from the surface. Though most media coverage focused on the minisubs connecting the anchor cables to the concrete weights a mile below the surface, surface divers did the vast majority of the work on the tunnel itself. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to the work being done in the spring and summer of 1985, by starting work in the relatively shallow water south of Sand Key (itself south of Key West), workers were able to iron out difficulties in the construction process without being burdened by the problems associated with deeper water. The first several miles of construction were all done in water shallow enough for divers to reach the bottom of the Strait. As time went on, fewer and fewer needed to descend to any position lower than the tunnel itself, and the purpose of starting the construction in shallow water was accomplished.

From the time the second tunnel section was secured at the appropriate depth on April 28, it would take a full week to weld the two sections together. Balky equipment and inexperienced divers made the work slow, but practice would eventually speed their efforts. By the end of the year, the welding time was down to a single day, and by 1987, two sections could be welded together in just six hours. By mid-May, and with the welding and placement of the fifth tunnel section, work began on the interior of the tunnel sections. At the northern end of the tunnel, a temporary end cap was welded into place, a mirror of the one that provided a water-tight seal on the southern end of the portions of the tunnel that ran below the reef south of Key West. Between the fifth and sixth tunnel sections, a steel plate was welded in order to provide a temporary seal on the end of the tunnel undergoing construction. The plate was designed to be easily cut away as construction went on, allowing access to sections to be built in the future. As needed, new plates could be welded in, providing dry space for laborers to work on the interior of the tunnel.

In many ways, those working on the interior of the unfinished tunnel sections had the most hazardous jobs of any on the tunnel project. The divers and minisubs working on the outside might be closer to the ocean, but they had their own breathing and safety gear. Those inside the tunnel had only a few emergency breathing packs. At any time, a leak could erupt, filling the dark, cramped tunnel sections with warm sea water and potential death. The workers who performed this hazardous work were mostly Cuban and utterly ordinary except for a strict selection process that weeded out those with claustrophobia. Light was provided by dozens of electrical lanterns powered by cables strung by support ships on the surface above. Until the connection of the submarine sections with those excavated from below the Key West reef in 1988, all the power and air used by the tunnel workers came through a few small cables and hoses.

With the transportation tubes having been manufactured as part of the tunnel shell, most of the tunnel workers labored in the cramped confines between the train tubes and the ballast tanks along the inside of the tunnel shell. The newly-manufactured shells, kept at a high pressure in order to minimize leaks, had to be inspected for manufacturing and welding faults and repaired where necessary. Electrical and telephone cable had to be physically laid in the tunnel shells, and lighting had to be set up in both the maintenance and transportation tubes. Finishing the maintenance tube was a priority for the first builders, as when the tunnel was connected to the Boca Chica end in 1988, it would be used to transport building material.

But before that date, several problems would have to be addressed and solved. The first, and most pressing of these was the survivability of the tunnel in a hurricane. The engineers who had designed the tunnel had made their estimates and designed the tunnel to survive the worst imaginable disaster, but facts and figures on paper still left many in Washington and Havana unsure about what the real result would be. In addition, little consideration had been made as to the tunnel construction itself. When and how would the construction ships handle evacuation in the path of an approaching storm? Plans were one thing -- action wholly another. Unfortunately for American Bridge and the thousands of workers aboard ship in the Florida Strait, there would be plenty of opportunity to test the effectiveness of those plans.

When the 1985 Atlantic hurricane season opened on June 1, the crew of the Glomar Explorer was in the process of laying its twelfth tunnel section, drilling in the seabed below the Sand Key Reef had hit yet another snag, thanks to seawater seepage through the brittle coral, and the Christopher Columbus was laying its 5,296th concrete weight in the Florida Strait. But all eyes were on the weather report, and for what it would bring. For two months, the fears of those involved in the construction amounted to nothing. The three storms that formed in July and early August were all too far north to cause any real concern. On August 12, however, that changed with the formation of Tropical Storm Danny near the Cayman Islands. As the weathermen watched, Danny marched northwest, gradually strengthening, and the tunnel workers held their breaths. But as the track continued, they began to breathe a sigh of relief. Danny's course took it well to the west of the construction effort, and although several bands of rain passed over the construction crews, they were no stronger than any of the thunderstorms that typically hit the area during the summer rainy season.

The relief that followed the passage of Danny was short-lived. On August 28, Tropical Depression Elena formed just off the east coast of Cuba. Later that evening, it was upgraded to a tropical storm. By that time, orders had been given to the construction fleet to pull up the divers, secure the lines and cables, and brace for the worst. Aboard the Glomar Explorer, hurried preparations were made to secure the tunnel shell that the ship had been placing at the time of the evacuation order. Controversially, the site manager aboard the Explorer ordered that the shell be secured via its steel cables, rather than having the shell lifted aboard the ship and transported out of harm's way. Though the section was in place and secured before Elena's course brought it across the building site, the Explorer suffered through seas heavier than anything yet experienced by the ship before reaching a safe harbor. Portions of the tunnel-gripping crane aboard the Explorer were damaged during the storm, but only slightly. Far more lasting was the damage to the site manager's career, as he was immediately released by American Bridge after word of the incident reached Pittsburgh.

Three days following the incident, the Glomar Explorer was back on station, laying the next section of tunnel under the command of a new site manager, promoted from within the tunnel-building operation. Two months of relatively uneventful tunnel building followed, and work progressed to the satisfaction of managers at the site and those back at American Bridge headquarters in Pittsburgh. In early November, however, the tunnel faced the greatest challenge of its young life with the development of Hurricane Kate, the latest-developing strong hurricane in recorded history. On November 19, it lashed the construction sites and the north Cuban coast with winds in excess of 110 miles an hour (175 km/h). At the land-side tunnel construction sites in Hershey, construction trailers were overturned and laboring pumps couldn't keep up with the flood of rainwater that inundated the raw excavations of the below-ground sections of the Cuban end of the tunnel. By the storm's end, over $5 million worth of damage had been inflicted on the construction efforts in Cuba and over a month of work had been lost.

As bad as the situation seemed for those on the ground in Cuba, it could have been far worse. The experience gained in the evacuation before Hurricane Elena allowed the ships of the construction fleet to reach safe harbors well in advance of the storm and for other preparations to be made at sea and ashore. Though the ships of the fleet were important, they paled in comparison to the continued survival of the tunnel. If any portion of the tunnel had been damaged by the comparatively minor Hurricane Elena, there would have had to be a major re-evaluation of the tunnel plan and potentially a cancellation of the project altogether. Fortunately, when the ships of the construction fleet returned to their stations, they found the tunnel, one hundred feet below the surface, to be completely untouched. In addition, the flooding and winds of Hurricane Elena allowed for minor modifications to be made in the design of the tunnel ends and in the clamps connecting the steel cables to the concrete weights.

The passage of Hurricane Elena, though expensive, provided experience that would be invaluable in future hurricanes and tropical storms. Perhaps surprisingly, only six tropical storms or hurricanes hit the construction site during the time the tunnel was being built. Other storms affected the construction process (particularly 1992's Hurricane Andrew, which hampered operations at the Port of Miami), but only six storms brought tropical storm-force winds or greater to the construction site. Each time, work would be halted, equipment tied down, and the construction fleet dispersed. Work might be delayed for up to a one or two days, or even a week, but the construction process always continued unabated afterward. Often, improvements were made to correct deficiencies revealed under the extreme conditions of the storms, leaving the tunnel stronger than before the storm hit.

By Christmas, the damage from Hurricane Elena had been made good in Cuba, and the Cuban drilling operations were once again on track, moving forward alongside the American land-side tunnel and the work of the Glomar Explorer, two portions of the project largely unaffected by the hurricane. With Christmas also came the end of the hurricane season and the arrival of cooler weather. Experience earned during the first year of operations, coupled with pleasant (comparatively) cool and dry weather allowed the crews of the construction fleet to set records in terms of tunnel constructed and ground (seabed) covered. It was a pattern that would be repeated for the duration of the construction project -- work would progress steadily throughout the year, but greatly increase pace with the arrival of the dry season and cooler weather in winter. Though the Florida Strait could hardly be called rough water even at the worst of times (hurricanes excepted), the calmer sea states that prevailed in winter helped work proceed more quickly. 1986 passed relatively quietly in terms of construction. The pace of work quickened with experience, and political arguments over whether the tunnel could be built or even if it should faded with the public realization that not only could it be done -- it was being done.

By the summer of 1987 and the return of hurricane season, most people on the inside of the tunnel project were worrying less about the storm season and more about the impending political storm surrounding the project. At the time of the laying of the first tunnel section in the spring of 1985, the political atmosphere of the tunnel project was a pleasant one, epitomized by the famous photo of President Reagan and the Cuban president shaking hands on the deck of the Glomar Explorer with the tunnel section in the background. Later historians theorized that the calm atmosphere had less to do with a lack of differences between the Cuban and American positions and more about the need to address the severe engineering problems that faced the project -- there was simply no extra effort to spend on ironing out the little political details that had been missed by the Cuban-American Tunnel Treaty. Discussions were tabled and decisions pushed back while the Joint American Tunnel Administration Commission worked on problems associated with the actual building of the tunnel. With tunnel construction beginning in earnest and most of the problems ironed out, however, JATAC began to address those political problems, creating no shortage of friction between the Cubans and Americans that made up the commission.

One of the key sticking points was the issue of Cuban workers. Due to a clause in the Tunnel Treaty, 60% of the workers on the tunnel project had to be hired in Cuba. The problem was that Cuba lacked the numbers of trained workers needed for the project. Over 60,000 workers would eventually work on the tunnel and its terminals, meaning that a vast number of workers had to be hired from Cuban agencies. By 1987, the supply of trained native Cuban workers was reaching its limits and Cuban agencies began flying in workers from the United States and Europe to work on the tunnel. When the Chunnel began to close off the supply of European workers, Asian workers were brought in. Highly-trained, they had experience that simply couldn't be had in Cuba in the quantity needed. This "double-dipping," as it became known, was extremely unpopular among the Cuban members of JATAC and the Tunnel Company who viewed the construction of the tunnel as a nationalistic enterprise. They viewed the hiring of outside experts as an insult to Cuba.

Among these was Andres Aguero, who, at age 81, was still the figurehead CEO of the Florida Strait Tunnel Company, itself a division of American Bridge. Despite continuing health problems owing to his advanced age that limited his actual work, Aguero continued to maintain a very visible presence in the construction process. The informal leader of a coalition that favored closing the loophole in the Tunnel Treaty that allowed the hiring of foreign and American workers as part of the 60% mandated in the Treaty. He was opposed by the board of directors of the Tunnel Company (most of whom were American Bridge directors as well) and most of the investors behind the project. They wanted to see the tunnel completed as cheaply and quickly as possible. Nationalistic concerns, if they had any, came second.

Events came to a head on July 14, when Aguero leaked the minutes of a closed meeting to the Cuban media in an effort to stir up outside support for his position. The strategy failed miserably. Though still seen as the Cuban father of the tunnel, most Cubans (even those of the younger generation) had a desire to see the tunnel completed, regardless of who actually did the construction. The prevailing view was that the tunnel itself, rather than the men building it, would speak to the success of Cuba. To make matters worse, an estimated 20% of the Cuban population owned at least one share in the Tunnel Company. Most Cubans viewed the purchase as a point of pride, something they could point to and say they were help building the tunnel in their own small way. Few viewed the shares as any sort of real investment on which they would receive a financial return. This view was also present in the United States, but on a much, much smaller scale. Those Americans who did invest in the tunnel in that manner were far more fanatical about it, but they were also fewer on the ground.

For Aguero, the end result of all this was a speedy and ungraceful ouster from his position at the head of the Tunnel Company. The firing was couched in terms of a "retirement for health reasons" to avoid irritating investors who supported Aguero, but it was clear to most outside observers that Aguero had worn out his welcome. The man who, for 15 years, had campaigned for the construction of a tunnel between Florida and Cuba now was on the outside looking in. Replacing him as head of the Tunnel Company was one of the three engineers who had worked with him on the project from the beginning. Manuel Cereijo, born in 1943, had been assigned by the Cuban government to Aguero's little committee in 1972 as part of their plan to keep Aguero out of the way. But Cereijo had been taken with Aguero's plans and had stuck with the former president through thick and thin, and now he had been hand-picked to succeed the man. A non-political figure, Cereijo had been chosen for his engineering acumen, not any particular managerial skill. It was fully expected by members of the company's directors that a new CEO would have to be chosen when the tunnel was completed, preferably someone with the public relations skills and economic expertise to turn a profit. Things wouldn't quite turn out that way.

Andres Aguero, meanwhile, quietly entered a private hospital two weeks after his July 17 dismissal for complications related to a case of the flu he had caught during his final days in office. He was released two months later, but suffered a minor stroke in Spring 1988. Confined to bed, he demanded a hospice with a view of Havana harbor, where he watched boats arriving from and departing for the construction site. Weekly reports from Cereijo kept him informed about the progress of construction.

For the most part, the men (and a few women) working on the tunnel project took little notice of the changes at the top of the Tunnel Company, which had little direct effect on day-to-day progress. The most immediate change for the construction crews was an influx of trained Europeans who replaced site-trained Cubans over the summer of 1987. Ironically, these replacements actually tended to slow progress when compared with the pace of the Cubans who had previously filled positions on the project. Though less experienced at ocean construction projects in general, they had been trained on-site in every particular of the world's largest and most difficult construction project. Many of the men who were replaced had skills learned on the job that couldn't be found in any new hire. After this fact was realized, the replacement of Cuban workers with foreigners was scaled back, and many of the men who had lost their jobs to Europeans found themselves re-hired a few months later. Eventually, a capable mix of Cuban, American, and foreign workers resulted. Ironically, it was a mix closer to the system envisioned by Aguero than the one put forward by his opponents at American Bridge and on the Tunnel Company's board of directors.

Manuel Cereijo, meanwhile, was busily settling into his new position as Chief Executive of the Tunnel Company, where he soon found that his duties largely entailed staying out of the way while the board of directors made their decisions. They had chosen him as an amiable non-entity who could be counted on to say all the right things on television and who had worked on the tunnel long enough to be taken seriously. For his first three months in the position, he did exactly that. On October 19, 1987, that all changed. On that date, known as "Black Monday" in the United States, stock markets worldwide suffered their largest single-day drops ever. In the United States, the Dow Jones lost 23% of its value. The Cuban stock market in Havana dropped by 18%. Suddenly, Tunnel Company shares, considered as close to a sure bet as anything in the stock market, became a risky investment along with everything else traded on the public markets.

Many investors panicked, fearing the recurrence of another Great Depression, which had been triggered by a similar selloff way back in 1929. Many Tunnel Company investors unloaded their shares in haste, hoping to minimize their losses. These sales triggered others, which in turn triggered others, and the ripple effect threatened to spread, following the same pattern in companies from Hong Kong to London to New York to Havana. In an emergency meeting of the Tunnel Company board of directors, debate raged as to what, if anything, should be done. While serious, the selloff was not fatal, and in the long run might even be a good thing as vacillating investors sold their shares to more stable individuals. But that was a long-term outlook and wouldn't matter if the bleeding couldn't be stopped in the short term. Possibilities and suggestions flew back and forth across the boardroom table of the Tunnel Company's headquarters in Miami. Manuel Cereijo remained silent through most of the meeting, his head swiveling back and forth as if following a tennis match. Shortly after midnight, he spoke for only the second time during the meeting.

His suggestion, thrown into the mix of possible corporate bandaids, was to begin selling tickets for tunnel trips as soon as possible. The idea didn't come completely out of left field -- the marketing department of the Tunnel Company had been debating the subject for several weeks, with many different options flying around. But Cereijo's suggestion was to start the sales far sooner than even the earliest marketing plan. The suggestion had several positives: it would generate revenue for the company, cause an uptick in publicity, but most importantly, it would engender confidence in the project. Cereijo argued that with tickets in hand, potential investors would feel far more confident that the tunnel would ultimately be completed. The biggest argument against the plan (and it was a big one) was that with less than one-fifth of the tunnel sections laid, let alone completed, the beginning of ticket sales could be seen a desperation move, potentially causing even bigger drops in Tunnel Company share prices. Other arguments against offering tickets for sale at such an early date dealt with the logistics of the sale -- who would sell the tickets, how the ticketing system would work, and how much the tickets would cost.

The debate lasted several days, but in the end it was the continued instability in share prices that decided matters for the board. By a 5-3 vote, Cereijo's suggestion became company policy. On Wednesday, October 21, the Company issued a press release stating that on November 1, 1987, the first tickets for the Florida Strait Tunnel would go on sale as part of a limited-time advance offering. Individual tickets would be priced at $35 USD, and would include passage for one automobile and one passenger. Additional passenger spaces could be purchased for $7 atop the initial $35 cost. Tickets would be offered for sale through various travel agents and ticket brokers. The announcement proved to be successful in stabilizing the Company's stock price, and when November 1 rolled around, over 5,000 tickets were sold on the first day alone. 20,000 were sold in the first week, and by the time the two-week offering ended, nearly 50,000 tickets had been sold. Cereijo's suggestion had worked to perfection, and the new CEO of the tunnel company was suddenly seen as a bit more than just a placeholder. Meanwhile, construction continued unabated by any financial fluctuations.

It was, however, affected by other events outside the normal course of construction. The first of these events came courtesy of the state of Florida, which was naturally eager to capitalize on the tunnel's construction and (eventual) completion. To service the immense number of cars and trucks that were predicted to travel to Cuba via the tunnel, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) in 1983 unveiled an immense plan to expand and extend Interstate 95 from its southern terminus in Miami an additional 150 miles southward to Boca Chica. In Miami, the Interstate would be expanded from four lanes to eight, and four elevated, non-stop lanes of brand new interstate would be constructed from Homestead southward. While the Boca Chica extension was a relatively new addition to the plan, the issue of expanding I-95 in Miami had been hotly-debated since the mid-1970s.

By 1983, however the original four lanes of I-95 were proving catastrophically inadequate to service Miami's exploding population. Thanks to Miami's reputation as an easy-going, tropical, relaxed city, millions of retirees and Americans seeking a change in scenery had flocked to the burgeoning metropolis. The city's road infrastructure, designed in the early-to-mid 1960s, failed to keep up thanks to protests from local businesses who were afraid that the construction of new elevated highways would mean potential customers could bypass their small stores. Eventually the need for expansion became dire enough to drown out their cries, and in 1983, the state of Florida began a road-building spree that continued right up to this day. Between Orlando and Boca Chica, a driver will today face over a dozen construction sites, with the orange-and-yellow barrels defining construction zones becoming a constant companion.

By 1987, FDOT's plan had finally broken ground after four years of legal and political wrangling. The mayor of Miami, in a televised ceremony, pressed a button that demolished 11 buildings that would be the site of I-95's first steps south to Boca Chica. Despite the opening of construction, opposition still continued, both in Miami and in Key West. In the Southernmost city, like-minded environmentalists and locals who feared the environmental damage that the highway expansion and tunnel construction would cause, formed the group Last Stand. The members of the appropriately-named group viewed themselves as the last barrier to the destruction of the fragile environment of the Florida Keys, which had originally been protected by national parks and refuges designated during the Brown presidency. Now, dispensations granted by the Reagan administration to the highway and tunnel builders threatened to destroy everything they thought saved.

Last Stand's anti-outsider and pro-environment message found fertile ground among the people of the Florida Keys, who had always been insular, separated by distance and accessibility from the growing population of mainland Florida. Now, they found themselves seemingly threatened by a flood of newcomers and building projects that threatened to destroy the environmental beauty that made the Keys a popular tourist destination, even with the attractions of Havana just a few hours away. Beginning in 1984, Last Stand-supported candidates began to win local elections. First by small margins, but as the movement gained steam, greater and greater margins and landslides became the rule. In 1987, virtually every major candidate in Monroe County and Key West was in some way affiliated with Last Stand. This association manifested itself in all sorts of minor annoyances for companies seeking to build in the Florida Keys. Taxes, duties, fees, and other costs suddenly manifested themselves for new construction, ushered in by new county ordinances. The affected companies simply bit the bullet and paid the higher costs, and also redoubled their efforts to portray themselves as doing something positive for the Florida Keys.

These efforts were less than successful, but so were Last Stand's supporters' efforts at slowing or stopping the construction springing up across the Keys. The two biggest construction projects -- the I-95 expansion and the tunnel project were federally-funded and therefore untouchable by local government. The taxes and fees instituted by the county began to backfire -- hampering businesses from opening new locations and expanding to take advantage of the new growth. Instead of opening offices in the Keys, construction firms and other commercial interests instead expanded operations in Collier and Miami-Dade Counties, which were only a few hours by water from Key West and the tunnel, anyway. Even with the added transportation needed, the cost was still less than scaling the financial walls erected by the county commission.

Stymied by their own moves, and pressured by Monroe County voters, the county commission took a radical new tack in an effort to stir outside public opinion and seceded from the United States. In a one-minute ceremony in Key West, the commissioners voted themselves out of the Union, proclaimed the creation of the "Conch Republic," and promptly surrendered to a representative of the U.S. Navy. Ceremonial "battles" of water hoses and thrown stale bread were held between civilian vessels and the Coast Guard, and protesters demonstrated on the bridge connecting Boca Chica Key to the northbound lanes of U.S. 1, blocking them to construction traffic. The "secession" was covered widely in the national media, including on television by CNN.

Unfortunately for the county commissioners and supporters of Last Stand, most of the United States and Cuba reacted with surprising hostility to the "secession," which was seen largely as a publicity stunt outside of south Florida. Outside observers simply saw the protesters and county commissioners as a few closed-minded southerners holding up progress for the rest of the country. In the United States, where an estimated 73% of the population supported the tunnel's construction, the protest went over like a lead balloon. In television coverage of the event, the clean-cut spokespeople made an impression where the crude-but-straightforward spokespeople for Last Stand did not. In Cuba, there was even less support for Last Stand's position. Thanks to the widespread purchase of Tunnel Company shares and the widespread perception that the tunnel was the next step in Cuba becoming a global leader, none of Last Stand's arguments resonated with Cubans. Perhaps if the Florida Keys had been a depressed area with an ailing economy and pleading for federal government aid, the protest would have been a successful one.

Though their gambit had failed, Last Stand's position didn't become completely hopeless until 1988, when a public meeting between Tunnel Company representatives and the county government devolved into violent shouts and arguments, including one death threat on a Tunnel Company officer by a Vice President of Last Stand. Charges were eventually brought against the individual, and he was sentenced to five years in state prison for the threat. After that point, Last Stand began to lose its influence in local politics, and never really recovered the momentum of the mid-1980s. Though unsuccessful in stopping or even slowing the construction spreading across the Keys, Last Stand eventually managed to extract tens of millions of dollars from the Tunnel Company for environmental restoration, mitigation, and research. Today, Last Stand continues in a far more stable legacy as a watchdog group for the Florida Keys and has recovered from its disastrous 1987 gambit.

Of course, work on the tunnel itself never stopped through all of these background arguments. Even with the beginning of construction on the I-95 extension, the vast majority of construction material continued to arrive by sea. The two narrow lanes of U.S. 1 were simply inadequate to provide the constant flow of men and equipment that were needed. Not until 1995, eight years after the beginning of the extension project, did large amounts of equipment begin to arrive via the long land route from Miami. At sea was where the work took place, and at sea was where the tunnel's supply lines rested.

1988 was a milestone year in the construction of the Florida Strait Tunnel. In March, Andres Aguero, Cuba's "Father of the Tunnel," suffered a minor stroke that left him in a coma for several months. He would never regain the physical or mental acuity he had prior to the stroke, but would survive for nine more years. Though sad, the event didn't affect the continuing construction of the tunnel, which was now crossing some of the deepest portions of the Florida Strait. In June, drilling on the Boca Chica end of the tunnel was pronounced complete and the floating portions of the tunnel were attached to land for the first time. In July, Last Stand faced an epic public relations disaster with the imprisonment of one of their vice presidents, lifting a public relations roadblock for the Tunnel Company. And in November, the Christopher Columbus finally completed its four-year mission of laying the concrete counterweights that would restrain the tunnel, preventing its buoyant structure from rising the hundred feet to the surface of the Strait.

Both the completion of the weight-laying project and the connection of the tunnel to its northern landward end were critically important to the long-term completion of the project, but the connection to Boca Chica was perhaps more important in the immediate term. With the completion of the land connection, supplies and workers could now be brought down without the aid of divers and real work on finishing the interior of the tunnel shell could begin. Of course, connecting the suspended sections of the tunnel to the portions excavated from the coral of Boca Chica wasn't a simple matter of just dropping in another tunnel section, welding it into place, and pumping out the seawater. The tunnel sections connecting the northern and southern ends of the suspended tunnel to the portions of the tunnel dug belowground were different from the rest of the tunnel in several ways.

Shortly after American Bridge acquired the Tunnel Company and won the bidding for the tunnel contract, the engineers working on the final design for the tunnel ran into a problem. The trains running through any planned tunnel would be traveling at an enormous rate of speed -- potentially several hundred miles an hour. These trains would naturally impart some of their enormous momentum on the tracks below. On a normal railroad, this momentum doesn't matter because the rails are securely fastened to the roadbed and the ground, and cannot move. In the tunnel, the rails would be attached to the tunnel shell, floating free in the waters of the Florida Strait, held in place only by its buoyancy and the cables restraining it. These would prevent side-to-side and up-and-down movement for the tunnel, but nothing would prevent the tunnel from moving forward or backward along its 90-mile length. As a train travels from the portion of the tunnel dug through the coral below Sand Key to the portion of the tunnel floating free, it "pushes" against the floor of the tunnel and creates a pressure wave that travels forward and backward along the tunnel. The faster a train goes when crossing from one portion of the tunnel to the other, the worse the pressure wave.

As the engineers determined, a solid steel tunnel might be able to withstand the force of that momentum for a few dozen times, but eventually the northernmost and southernmost tunnel sections would shatter under the strain of the pressure waves created by the passage of the trains, flooding the tunnel. Several options were discussed, including scheduling simultaneous north- and southbound trains so that their pressure waves would cancel each other out. This was deemed impractical due to the restraints it would place on scheduling trains, limiting the tunnel's flexibility to handle large numbers of travelers. Due to this fact, the designers incorporated two enormous shock absorbers into the final tunnel design. One would be located at the northern Boca Chica end of the suspended sections of the tunnel, while the other would be located at the Hershey, Cuba end of the tunnel. In understanding these shock absorbers, it's important to note that the actual movement of the tunnel was minor (during the worst simulated pressure waves, the tunnel moved at a rate of less than one inch/sec) -- it was the enormous mass of the tunnel, coupled with the repeated shocks caused by passing trains, that caused problems.

Construction of the shock absorbers began in 1984, shortly after the freezing of the tunnel design. Almost immediately, problems began to develop. The amount of force needed to restrain the advance of the multi-million-ton mass of the tunnel burst hydraulic cylinders in testing. Friction-based shock absorbers proved inadequate, and other solutions proved either too expensive or simply impractical. In the end, the designers compromised. The final design for the "portal" sections of the tunnel (the sections joining the excavated tunnel to the floating tunnel) incorporated the largest practical system of shock absorbers and stabilizers. To prevent them from bursting under the strain of the pressure waves, the tunnel engineers mandated a 75 mph speed limit for trains passing through the portal sections. While in the floating sections of tunnel or in the short stretches of excavated tunnel at the beginning and end of the trip, the trains would be free to accelerate to their top speed of 170 mph. But while passing through the portals, they had to be limited to a fraction of that speed in order to avoid damaging the tunnel. The managers of the Tunnel Company were understandably upset, but the cost of engineering a better solution would have far exceeded the gains to be made.

In recent years, the Tunnel Company has announced plans to upgrade the tunnel's shock absorbers to incorporate state-of-the-art magneto rheological dampers into the tunnel in an effort to eliminate the 75 mph speed restriction. However, this upgrade is not scheduled to take place until the 2030 remodeling, by which time the tunnel will have recouped its initial construction costs.

The emplacement of the northern portal section took place on June 27, 1988. By this time, the crew of the Glomar Explorer had three full years of tunnel-building experience and even the ungainly structure of the specialized tunnel section couldn't prevent the Explorer from emplacing, welding, and pumping out the section in less than two days. On June 30, Manuel Cereijo became the first person to walk from the excavated portions of the tunnel and into a floating section. He was met in a short ceremony by the combined diving crews who had been working on the interiors of the tunnel shell even before the connection to land was established. Cereijo was a popular man with the everyday workers, and the applause he received during the ceremony was mostly genuine. His engineering background, coupled with his continued support for higher pay and good working conditions made him popular among the workers, if not with the Tunnel Company's shareholders and parent company, American Bridge. Though that support would cause his "reassignment" to the position of chief engineer in 1989 (a de-facto demotion) at the time Cereijo was still riding high off the successful initial ticket offering and the support that followed.

The men he met were the hardiest, most elite of the divers, welders, and builders that worked on the entire project. 45,000 people could make the claim of having worked on the project directly -- with another 10,000 working in offices ashore. Just over 1,000 of those made the hundred-foot dive down through an airlock to the dark, pressurized tube that was the tunnel before the connection to land. Tenuously supplied with light and air via cables from the surface, any accident was inevitably serious and potentially fatal. Even a minor injury meant a long ascent to the surface and a probable stay in a decompression chamber before any treatment. Three of the 14 fatalities that took place during tunnel construction happened among those thousand workers during the three years they went to work in isolation, a higher percentage than for any other segment of construction.

The photo taken of the meeting between Cereijo and the "grunts," as they were known, is perhaps the most iconic image of the entire tunnel construction project. The meeting ceremony took place with none of the ceremony that surrounded the laying of the first tunnel section. Instead of pomp and circumstance, there was simply one group of grim-faced men meeting another group of men. On the left side of the photograph are the grunts, almost shadowed into obscurity by the lack of light in the floating sections of the tunnel -- after all, when all your electricity came through a thin set of cables from the surface, you had to be economical. On the right side of the photograph are the illuminated workers of a new shift, clean-faced and illuminated by the lights attached to the portal section, but wearing expressions no less determined than those of the grunts. In the center is Cereijo, hand extended toward that of a grunt, looking not at the camera, but toward the worker walking toward him. It wasn't a picture that was circulated widely -- indeed at all -- by the Tunnel Company's PR department, but by the time the last section of tunnel was laid, it became the picture that symbolized the effort, the men, and everything else about the construction project.

Workers and equipment could now travel nearly ten miles south of Sand Key without the use of a boat. Priority was placed on improving the maintenance tunnel sections of the tunnel shell, which would be the primary route for workers to travel before and after completion. The maintenance tunnel was also sealed and pressurized in the completed sections, creating a safe haven in the event of catastrophic flooding. Until the completion of the rails in the two train tubes, heavy equipment could also be driven down those sections of the tunnel shell, speeding progress. The work, however, was still limited by the number of tunnel sections welded into place, and that project continued to move slowly.

In November, the Christopher Columbus completed its three-year task of laying the concrete foundation weights for the tunnel. Stretching the 90 miles from Sand Key to just north of the coast of Cuba, the weights were the first portion of the tunnel project to stretch the entire route from the Florida Keys to Cuba. In the three months that followed the completion of the Columbus's mission, the ship was docked in Havana Harbor, where it underwent refits and repairs in order to take its place as the flagship of the tunnel-laying fleet working from the Cuban coast northward. Just as the Glomar Explorer worked to grip the enormous tunnel sections with its crane, so too would the Columbus. Owing to the Columbus's smaller size, it was somewhat less capable and worked slightly slower, but it was still remarkably effective and almost doubled the pace at which tunnel sections were welded into place. By March 1989, the Columbus was on-site north of Cuba, working towards the center of the Strait. Owing to the later start, the first section laid by the Columbus was the portal section, which allowed for easy access to the interior of the tunnel shells on the Cuban leg of the project.

As the Columbus tied up to its Havana dock, the United States was electing a new president. Owing to term limits, President Reagan couldn't run for a third term. Vice President Gonzales, surprisingly, decided not to put his name forward as a candidate. In a public statement, he declared that he had "become tired of politics as usual," and announced that he would not seek his party's nomination. At the time, pundits speculated that the announcement stemmed from a series of difficult political defeats, including the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Gonzales had supported. They also pointed to the continuing illness of Gonzales's son, who was stricken with leukemia. Regardless of his reasoning, Gonzales's refusal to seek the nomination left the door open for Democrats Jesse Jackson and Albert Gore, whose balanced ticket saw both ushered into office by a large margin. As both men supported the tunnel project and had vowed to continue Reagan's campaign of "Rebuilding America," work on the tunnel continued unabated.

As 1988 turned into 1989, the smooth sailing of the tunnel construction crews was not echoed in the ranks of the Tunnel Company managers and board of directors. Manuel Cereijo, who had been appointed CEO in late 1987, came under increasing fire from the board of directors and much of the company's stockholders. His pro-worker policies, though making him popular among the rank-and-file, contributed to rising construction costs and erased the good will he had generated during the company's initial advance ticket sales. That idea, though successful, couldn't completely counter the continued missteps that he, as an engineer with limited hands-on experience, kept blundering into. By April 1989, events surrounding Cereijo climaxed when the Tunnel Company's annual fiscal report revealed that expenditures were running five percent above expectations thanks to Cereijo's unwillingness to compromise on employee raises and benefits. Five percent may not sound like much, but when the total amount is upwards of $5 billion, five percent amounts to tens of millions of dollars. In May, Cereijo was voted out and a search for a new CEO began.

The board of directors didn't have far to look -- former Vice President Carlito Gonzales, whose son had finally lost his battle with leukemia, came to the company looking to fill the position. Privately, he hoped that by throwing himself into his work, he could avoid thinking about the death of his son. Voted in as CEO just a few months later, Gonzales found that work and the board of directors seemingly found the savior it was looking for.

Gonzales immediately faced several problems that had arisen as a result of Cereijo's firing. Anxious workers who feared pay cuts, layoffs, or a loss in benefits as a result of Cereijo's departure were threatening a strike, and that was a problem that had to be fixed as soon as possible. With the skill of a trained politico, Gonzales negotiated a new contract with the workers that promised not to cut benefits but also stated that they would not be increased for several years in order to balance the company's books. Cereijo was "reassigned" to a position as chief engineer of the project, a position for which he was far better suited, anyway. Cuban stockholders, angered at the loss of a high-profile Cuban representative in the project had to have their fears allayed, and Gonzales embarked on a goodwill tour to do just that. In speeches across Cuba, he played up his Cuban ancestry and tried to make it clear that his hiring was not the sign of an American takeover, and that the tunnel was a Cuban project just as much as it was an American one. Though a small protest sell-off still took place, the Cubans who owned one or two shares each (and collectively owned upwards of a third of the entire Tunnel Company stock), by and large held on to their stock. Deftly and with no small amount of political skill, Gonzales defused each of the problems that had been caused by Cereijo's "reassignment." Work on the tunnel progressed unabated.

The first few weeks of Gonzales's tenure saw the lowering and welding of the first switchover section of the tunnel. The switchover sections are 400-foot long tunnel sections designed to allow trains to switch from one train tube to the other so that if a section of track needs to be taken off line for maintenance, the entire 98-mile length of the tunnel does not need to be shut down. Six of these double-size tunnel sections are built into the 80 miles of floating tunnel -- one every 13.3 miles. The enormous size of the switchover sections caused problems aboard the Glomar Explorer when it was time for the first one to be emplaced. Several motors on the Explorer's crane burnt out under the enormous weight of the section, and it took three times the normal length of time for the section to be fully welded into place. With practice comes skill, however, and the five remaining switchover sections were emplaced more quickly each time. The switchover sections are unique in that in the event of an emergency, they can be completely sealed and effectively serve as a lifeboat in the event of a catastrophic disaster. The end result is an up-scaled version of the maintenance tube, which itself is pressurized and can serve as a rescue area. The switchover sections are, unlike the maintenance tube, over-engineered to the point that they can survive the pressures at the bottom of the Florida Strait, so that in the worst possible disaster -- several tunnel sections ruptured, the ballast tanks of the switchover section destroyed -- a rescue may become possible using the minisubs of the Tunnel Authority. Detractors are quick to point out, however, that a disaster of the magnitude needed to destroy the ballast tanks in the switchover section would also damage the structural integrity of the section enough that it would be unlikely to survive a trip to the bottom of the Strait.

Throughout 1989, construction continued at a steady pace both in the Florida Straits and ashore. While the Christopher Columbus, Glomar Explorer, and thousands of hired divers continued to lay and weld tunnel sections in the warm waters of the Strait, thousands of other workers labored on the infrastructure leading to the tunnel terminals and on the terminals themselves. In New York, Havana, and London, other men worked -- the bankers and financial officers that kept the money coming. And around the world, men and women just like those employed by the Tunnel Company worked on dozens of other tunnel projects. In Japan, the Seikan tunnel enjoyed its first year of operation. Beneath the English Channel, British and French engineers labored behind their enormous Tunnel Boring Machines. And in the Soviet Union, Soviet engineers labored in vain on a grand tunnel project to match that of the United States and Cuba. While the world watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, those same men received the news that the Wall was not the only thing falling that night – the Soviet tunnel, located beneath the Urals, and which had been planned as part of a grand plan for the Trans-Soviet Highway – was cancelled on the same night.

In the United States and Cuba, work continued.

Ashore, both in Cuba and on Boca Chica Key, work began on the permanent terminal and administrative buildings for the Tunnel Company. In Hershey, construction continued on an enormous complex of buildings. Everything from ordinary offices to train yards to the southern terminal of the Florida Strait Tunnel were needed, and although some temporary buildings had previously been erected to fill the needs of the construction process, few permanent buildings had been built by the time construction began in earnest in the middle of 1989.

The first priority for the builders was securing an adequate supply of electricity for the tunnel complex and for the tunnel itself. 98 miles of electrified track use a great deal of electricity, and initial plans for the tunnel involved the construction of a dedicated power plant in Hershey to meet the demand. As costs rose, however, those plans were shelved in favor of dedicated lines connecting the tunnel to the Cuban and American power grids. The Hershey terminal, which is the most visible portion of the tunnel complex to visitors, borrows heavily from the beaux arts-style architecture still present on many older Havana buildings, and which was seeing a resurgence in the late 1980s. The heavy gilding and ornate decorations sprayed across the exterior of these buildings had gone out of style in the 1960s, but the architect of the Hershey terminal chose to take advantage of that history, rather than using a brutalist or futurist approach in the style of the LAX airport terminal in Los Angeles or the Boca Chica terminal, which was being built less than a hundred miles to the north.

Beneath the surface of its beaux-arts exterior, which resembles a color- and fresco-splattered version of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, is a rather ordinary platform and underground tunnel that slowly rises from the portal tunnel section at the coast to Hershey, one mile inland. Again, the greater amount of space available allows for a more conventional approach than the one needed in the confined space of Boca Chica Key.

Initially, plans called for the high-speed tunnel railway to connect directly to a series of high-speed railway tracks connecting Hershey to Havana, Camaguey, and the rest of Cuba’s large cities. Again, rising costs stopped this from taking place. With billions of dollars diverted to tunnel construction and investment, it became politically impossible for even more money to be spent on high-speed railways. Conventional trains and roads would have to do, at least to start. (Next year, an extension of the high-speed railway is scheduled to reach Havana, 15 miles to the west.)

The terminals and roadways are arranged around the tunnel terminal like spokes radiating from a central point, and a visitor today will find virtually every space filled with automobiles of all kinds. That fact stems from a decision made during the construction process, one made in ignorance and no small bit of racism. The American designers of the tunnel complex anticipated a flood of automobile traffic from the north – American tourists heading south to the casinos and beaches of Cuba – and made plans to meet that flood. Space was designated and machinery designed to allow the quick unloading of automobiles recently arrived from Boca Chica. Much less thought was given to traffic heading north. After all, vacationers (according to computer simulations) tended to arrive en masse and depart separately, depending on the length of the vacation, so much less time was devoted to designing an optimum loading setup for vehicles heading north.

Almost immediately after the opening of the tunnel and the Hershey tunnel, the designers’ mistake was realized. Not only were large numbers of Americans heading south, large numbers of Cubans were heading north. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992, coupled with the free-trade clauses of the Tunnel Treaty made the United States as attractive a destination for Cubans as Cuba was for Americans. The number of Cubans heading north vastly exceeded the expectations of the systems designers that had designed the loading and unloading techniques perfected on computers and put into place in the design of the Hershey terminal.

To be fair, NAFTA was a development that took place three years after construction began on the terminal itself, and several years after the design simulations had been conducted. Despite that fact, the long lines heading north engendered no shortage of short tempers and angry accusations that the American engineers had deliberately overlooked the needs of ordinary Cubans in favor of American tourists. A hasty redesign of the loading and unloading system followed, and three years after the initial opening of the tunnel, the new system was put into place. Though it did relieve the worst of the crowding and traffic jams, congestion near the Hershey terminal is still enormous today. The opening of the direct Havana-Boca Chica high-speed rail route next year is expected to help the situation, but extensive delays are likely to continue well into the future.

Ironically, the Boca Chica Terminal, which required enormous effort and planning in order to avoid congestion on the cramped confines of Boca Chica Key has been less affected by congestion than Hershey. Though traffic is still heavy on a daily basis both in the terminal and on I-95 to and from Miami, it moves steadily in a way that drivers waiting in Hershey can only dream of.

Construction on the Boca Chica Terminal began in 1988, one year earlier than in Hershey. Unlike in Cuba, where massive amounts of space were available for an enormous terminal complex, the limited space available on Boca Chica means that the northern terminus of the tunnel consists solely of the terminal building and the parking and transportation infrastructure needed to keep the automobiles and passengers moving south. Because of that limited space, the designers of the northern terminal faced a unique challenge. Though the northern portal section of the tunnel (the switchover between floating and excavated tunnel) was below Sand Key three miles south, there simply wasn’t room to create a gradually sloping tunnel to the surface as in Cuba. The northern end of the tunnel had to be driven deep, below the coral reef that provides so much of the tourism for the Florida Keys.

This fact meant that if the tunnel was to reach the surface of Boca Chica Key, it would have needed to travel an angle steeper than 45 degrees in order to climb the hundred feet separating the normal depth of the tunnel with the surface. This angle proved to be far too steep for the high-speed trains to travel, and so the terminal designers had to come up with a solution. As they dithered and debated, drawing up dozens of outlandish – and expensive – solutions, work on the tunnel continued. By 1987, the floating portions of the tunnel were nearly ready to be connected to the tunnel excavated below the reef. A decision had to be made quickly. Facing a rapidly-approaching deadline, they did what politicians and architects alike have done throughout history – they compromised.

During the construction process for the portions of the tunnel excavated from below Boca Chica, the reef, and Sand Key, a vertical shaft had been sunk one hundred feet down on Boca Chica in order to provide access for the construction workers. Though never designed for anything more than temporary construction access, the architects of the Boca Chica terminal seized on the hundred-foot shaft as a solution to their problems. If they couldn’t bring the train to the terminal, why couldn’t they bring the terminal to the train?

And so, in 1988, construction began on the Boca Chica terminal – one hundred feet below the surface of Boca Chica Key. The decision to place the terminal a hundred feet below ground created many problems and several opportunities for the terminal builders. First and foremost was the problem of expanding the cavern and building the terminal while construction traffic bound for portions of the tunnel further south continued to flow. The congestion created by all the construction vehicles needed for both terminal and tunnel construction created what one pundit called “the worst underground traffic jam in history.”

Expanding the cavern below Boca Chica caused problems of its own, beyond creating congestion. The method used to create the cavern in the first place – the New Austrian Tunneling method – involved digging the shaft, spraying the walls with adhesive in order to prevent cave-ins from the porous coral rock, then putting up a concrete liner to prevent water leakage. This method didn’t lend itself to easy expansion of the cavern, which had been constructed initially to serve as a marshaling area for equipment destined for the tunnel further south. Breaking the concrete liners caused flooding, and work on the tunnel itself was delayed multiple times as work on the terminal caused seawater flooding that threatened to inundate the cavern below Boca Chica.

After one incident where the flooding was severe enough to overwhelm the pumps, forcing divers to be brought in to stop the flooding, engineers began deepening the cavern by twenty feet. This digging created a “bilge space” for the cavern, creating a holding area for even the worst flood. Just as a bilge operates on a naval vessel, holding any water that leaks through the hull, this twenty-foot-deep space prevented sea water from overwhelming the construction site again. Following the completion of the cavern, the bilge space served good use as equipment space for the ventilators, generators, and electrical transformers used in the terminal.

As work on the cavern continued through 1989 and 1990, engineers and architects debated the solution to the biggest problem created by placing the terminal underground – how to get the thousands of automobiles and passengers that would travel to Cuba – one hundred feet down to the trains. As before, they looked to the way the tunnel construction crew had solved the same problem.

After the drilling of the vertical construction shaft, tunnel workers had installed a series of enormous elevators in order to transport equipment and supplies one hundred feet down. Though slow and ungainly, the hydraulic elevators were strong enough to lift and lower the bulky drills, miners, and other equipment needed for the excavation and construction of the tunnel. Spiral ramps, such as used in parking garages, were an option, but the size of the equipment that needed to be lowered ruled out their use. The same circumstances precluded the use of spiral ramps for the loading of the automobile trains – there simply wouldn’t be enough room for the eighteen-wheelers that were projected to use the tunnel.

And so the architects and engineers of the terminal were forced to use the same method of transportation that construction vehicles used – an elevator. Four of them, to be exact – two for loading vehicles and two for unloading vehicles. The elevators, as designed, were some of the largest moving structures in the world and presented no shortage of problems. In order to load and unload the automobile cars in the tunnel trains rapidly enough, each elevator needed to transport fifty midsize automobiles in a single trip. Because of this fact, each of the elevator platforms measured over 10,000 square feet in size. This necessitated the drilling of four new shafts through the porous coral rock of Boca Chica Key and the whole process took almost as long as the construction of the terminal itself.

The unique loading and unloading system required skilled and experienced operators to work efficiently, and even before the system’s completion, operators and guidelines had to be worked out. With trains potentially coming in and departing on an hourly basis, loading schedules and techniques needed to be figured out in order to avoid accidents and ensure the greatest possible efficiency. Computerized efficiency programs, a novelty in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were used extensively in the planning and development process. Space for approximately two hundred vehicles (semi-trailers would take up more space) was anticipated in the planned tunnel trains. Loading the train to its maximum capacity would require two full elevator-loads of vehicles for each train, and given the limited space available for the underground terminal, efficiency was paramount.

Work on the Boca Chica Terminal, due to its underground nature, would take far longer than the work needed for the Hershey terminal. The terminal would not be completed and at its full operational capacity until over a year after the official opening of the tunnel in 1997.

As construction went on in the Florida Strait and on the terminals ashore, the design and development process for the tunnel’s trains kicked into high gear. In February 1990, the design was finalized for the high-speed electric trains that would run through the tunnel. Their engineering had not been an easy task.

Several different factors affected the ultimate design of the streamlined stainless-steel trains that today travel from Boca Chica to Hershey. Cost, efficiency, speed, capacity, and reliability issues all had their say in the development process. The initial design specifications, drawn up during the 1982 request for bids, called for a “high-speed electric train service connecting the United States to Cuba.” “High speed,” as indicated in the contract, was defined as “average speeds above 120 miles an hour.” To meet that requirement, Tunnel Company engineers drew up a magnetically-levitated monorail system that was on the bleeding edge of early 1980s technology. The monorail was the wave of the future – or so everyone said – and a monorail had a sense of “the future is now” that the Company’s marketing department loved and a sense of simplicity that the engineers appreciated.

But as tunnel construction costs rose and the anticipated train development costs rose as well, the engineers in charge of designing the train were forced to search for alternatives. They looked towards Europe for answers, much as Europe had looked to America in inspiration for the development of the Chunnel. There, the Tunnel Company’s engineers found the French TGV, a modification of which was being planned for operation in the Chunnel and in England. This was a standard wheeled train that needed none of the costly and unreliable magnetic technology in order to achieve incredible speeds.

Beginning in 1988, General Electric began developing an American TGV in response to a request by the Tunnel Company and by Amtrak, which had plans for a high-speed rail service between American cities. With subsidies from the “Rebuilding America” infrastructure improvement and urban redevelopment bills passed by the Reagan administration and continued by President Jackson, General Electric found high-speed locomotives to be financially lucrative and jumped into the project with both feet.

A prototype locomotive was constructed in 1989, and testing continued throughout the year. French engineers, including many who had designed the TGV, were hired by General Electric in order to avoid making the same mistakes that the French had done. Helped by the French engineers, work progressed quickly and the design was frozen in February 1990. Working alongside the General Electric engineers was a team from the Tunnel Company, which would have to build the tracks that the train would ride on. Their task was made easier by the decision to switch from a maglev monorail to a standard design that was far more reliable and required much less electricity to operate. Until the tunnel was fully completed, however, work on the train tracks could not begin. The train tubes were being used by construction equipment and for transporting supplies needed for the construction. Only when the tunnel was complete could finishing work begin. Until then, the train design and manufacturing process continued.

In late 1991, the first of the production locomotives left the General Electric assembly line in Pennsylvania. With the tunnel not yet ready, General Electric engineers busied themselves with the design of the train cars and on improving the performance of the locomotive. This process eventually resulted in a top speed of over 140 miles an hour for the Tunnel’s locomotives – 20 miles an hour greater than had been originally specified in the contract.

The train cars were designed for comfort as well as performance. Passenger cars were laid out to maximize passengers’ personal space, with a row of two seats on each side of the central aisle. Ample room was left for later customization and changes in the interior design, which would naturally take place over the anticipated 50-year lifetime of the train car. The design for the automobile cars didn’t come as easily.

As people in Europe, America, and around the world celebrated or mourned the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of the Cold War, several rounds of train car design and re-design took place. The goal in all this, as with the elevators at Boca Chica, was to maximize the efficiency of the loading and unloading of the automobiles into and out of the train cars designated for their use. To speed the loading and unloading process, the engineers at General Electric, assisted by the team from the Tunnel Company, came up with an inventive design.

The automobile cars of the Tunnel trains today feature sliding sides that allow the entire left and right sides of the car to be lifted up and away, allowing easy access to the interior of the cars. To speed loading, the floors of the cars feature platforms that slide outward. Automobiles are driven on to the platforms (which are level with the raised concrete deck of the terminal’s automobile docks) and parked nose-to-tail. The platforms are then retracted into the train car and the process repeated for the upper level of the train car. The sides of the train car are then lowered and the train car is ready to travel. To unload the car, the process is reversed. A trained crew can load an individual train car in 5-10 minutes, and several cars can be loaded or unloaded simultaneously.

By the autumn of 1992, the first cars and locomotives were mated for testing and trials. Training for conductors, loaders, train engineers, and everyone else needed to run the trains began, and procedures for the loading and unloading of the train cars – the most difficult portion of the operation – were worked out by trial and error. This work was critically important to the completion of the tunnel project, but went largely unnoticed by the general public. Overshadowing everything was the laying of tunnel sections, the process of which reached a climax in 1992.

The addition of the Christopher Columbus to the tunnel-laying process greatly speeded construction during the four years that followed its addition to the construction fleet in November 1988. When the Columbus finished its weight-laying duties and was reassigned to the construction fleet, just over one-third of the tunnel had been laid down in three years. Between 1988 and 1992, improved procedures, better equipment, more experienced workers, and the addition of the Columbus to the fleet saw the tunnelers lay sixty miles of undersea sections in the time it had taken the Glomar Explorer to lay less than half that.

And on November 1, 1992, it all came to an end. In an elaborate ceremony reminiscent of the one that had taken place seven years earlier, the final tunnel section was laid down and welded into place. President Jackson, former Vice-President Gonzales (now CEO of the Tunnel Company), the President of Cuba, and dozens of other government officials were on hand for the ceremony. Unlike the ceremony in 1985, this one took place without a hitch. The Christopher Columbus lowered the enormous set of steel tubes with its crane, and the section was welded into place less than four hours later. By the end of the day, the section had been pumped out, interim covers torched away, and a second ceremony took place one hundred feet below the ocean as a motorcade transported President Jackson (who would vault to an electoral victory a few days later) and party from Boca Chica to Cuba while a similar motorcade brought the President of Cuba through the tunnel to meet him. The two men met in a ceremony at the halfway point, where still more ceremonies took place. Many historians have speculated that the gala ceremony helped propel President Jackson to a victory in the 1992 presidential election just a few days later. More cynical observers have speculated that the gala ceremony came about because the election was just a few days off.

Regardless of the circumstances that led to the staging of the event, the deed was done. Seven years after the first tunnel section was laid, the last slid into place. It was a critical landmark in the construction of the Tunnel. But the work was not yet complete. The tunnel was still a hollow shell, a steel tube stretching over a hundred miles through the coral of Boca Chica, the water of the Florida Strait, and the soil of Cuba. No tracks had yet been installed, no permanent cabling had been strung, and the vast majority of the tunnel was still dark, lit only by temporary portable lanterns. So incomplete was the tunnel that during the motorcade that brought President Jackson to meet with the President of Cuba, there had been a danger that the cars of the motorcade would emit so much carbon dioxide that they would create a fatal atmosphere within the tunnel – the ventilation system had not yet been installed. Fortunately, that event didn’t come to pass and the motorcade and ceremony passed without incident.

But even as the final welds were made and construction equipment rearranged, the first rumblings of something wrong began to surface. It had taken seven years to complete the laying of the tunnel. In that time, French and British engineers had planned, dug, and finished the Channel tunnel in Europe. Though not yet completed, the Chunnel had finished its digging a year earlier. Now, several magazines and newspapers in the United States were questioning why the project was taking so long. The quick answer was that the Tunnel was nearly four times as long as the Chunnel, and so needed more time to complete. This didn’t answer all the questions, however. The original schedule had called for the tunnel to be completed in 1990, with an opening in 1994. This schedule was now out the window.

In addition, the cost of construction had been enormous. Of the $37.4 billion original estimate by American Bridge, approximately $32 billion had been spent on construction. In 1992, there was a real danger that the completion of the tunnel would require far more money than had originally been planned. And over the next year, American Bridge did apply for an additional $5 billion in government loans. Owing to the increasing pressure on the tunnel project, the loans came from the American and Cuban governments reluctantly and with several conditions attached.

With the money in hand and the tunnel shell complete, work began on the interior in earnest. The first priority for the workers was the installation of secondary and auxiliary pumps in each of the tunnel sections. The primary ballast and anti-flooding pumps had been installed during the welding process in order to handle the occasional leaks and condensation that appeared in even the best-welded tunnel. Auxiliary pumps were needed for safety concerns, and the electrical wiring needed to operate the pumps and lights within the tunnel was also a priority.

The work was slow, dark, and potentially dangerous. In 1993, a mislaid cutting torch set electrical insulation ablaze thirty miles south of Boca Chica Key and a hundred feet below the surface of the Florida Strait. Three workers perished in the resulting fire, all as a result of smoke inhalation. Fire suppression systems, which were planned for the tunnel, had not yet been activated. The incident sparked a series of lawsuits that resulted in costly payments to the families of the deceased. The event also created a storm of negative publicity and American Bridge was forced to invest in improved safety equipment for tunnel workers, further escalating costs.

On May 6, 1994, the Channel Tunnel opened for operation in Europe to enormous acclaim. The Florida Strait Tunnel, meanwhile, was still far from being finished. Track laying began in September 1994, and progressed relatively quickly. A set of eight locomotives and accompanying cars were purchased from General Electric for a sum of $1.2 billion. Their high cost was representative of the problems that had arisen during their design as well as the complex nature of the high-speed trains.

The cost was high enough to hamper the development of an Amtrak high-speed rail link between Washington D.C. and New York City, though one would eventually be built several years later. The subsidies provided by the government and the initial investment provided by the Tunnel Company helped to make the project financially possible.

In simulators in Cuba and the United States, train operators learned their trade and loading and unloading techniques were refined and improved. The terminals in Boca Chica and Hershey were improved, expanded, and refined. The General Electric Fusion locomotives were loaded on to ships and shipped to Hershey via sea. The irony wasn’t lost on many of the people aboard or the engineers in charge of the shipment. After slight complications, the locomotives and cars arrived in Hershey in the summer of 1995. There, they were mated in their forward-and-back configuration – locomotives were needed at the front and back of the train, as there was no room to turn around at the Boca Chica end of the tunnel – and testing continued.

By 1996, the Tunnel Company was burning through money at a fantastic rate. Not only was construction continuing on the interior of the tunnel, but the tunnel shell had to be maintained regularly and the terminals at Boca Chica and Hershey were still not finished. With the money running out and time quickly becoming a factor, the Tunnel Company Board of Directors and CEO Carlito Gonzales made a critical decision. The tunnel would open to the public on July 1, 1997 – no matter what.

To ensure that the tunnel would be completed in time for that drop-dead opening date, completion of the tunnel was prioritized over everything else. Non-essential work on the terminals was dropped in favor of putting more workers into the tunnel and on track construction projects. Tickets went on sale to the general public on August 1, 1996, and immediately became a hot commodity. Though most of the first day’s tickets had already been sold in the preliminary offering that had taken place in 1987, Americans and Cubans alike jumped at the chance to purchase tickets for what promised to be a historic event.

Unlike the 1987 sale, which took place primarily through licensed dealers, the public sale of tickets in 1996 began through the Tunnel Company itself. The Company even utilized the novel concept of online ticket sales using the Internet, then a new concept in marketing. Such was the demand for tickets that the Company’s Web site immediately crashed at the opening of ticket sales, requiring a restructuring of its online connectivity and structure.

The 1996 U.S. Presidential election saw Vice President Albert Gore fall by a narrow margin to Republican Lamar Alexander. Alexander campaigned on a campaign of “fiscal responsibility,” and deplored the expensive government-funded programs of the Reagan and Jackson years. One of his prime targets was the Florida Strait Tunnel, which he saw as a government boondoggle. While he declared that he wouldn’t cancel any of the existing loans for the project, he did promise that he would veto any additional loans for the project, saying in a bowdlerization of President Truman’s famous phrase, “the bucks stop here.”

That declaration made the Tunnel Company’s determination to open the tunnel on July 1 come hell or high water all the greater. From January 20, 1997 – the date of Alexander’s inauguration – there were less than seven months left until the scheduled opening of the tunnel. For all intents and purposes, those seven months would be a race. It was a race between the construction workers and the concrete deadline, a race between the company’s budget and the end of the government loans, and a race among the media organizations covering it as to who could generate the most hype.

The first and second of those races looked to be ones the Tunnel Company could win. For all the problems and expenses incurred during the finishing of the tunnel shell, the five years that had been spent finishing the tunnel hadn’t been entirely wasted. The construction workers had become extremely proficient at all the vagaries that working in a steel tube 100 feet below the surface of the ocean entailed. Over the last seven months, work progressed at a rate as fast as anything else during construction. The second race – the race against the company’s deficits – also looked to be a winnable one. In the four months between the opening of ticket sales and Alexander’s inauguration, the Tunnel Company had sold over $100 million in tickets. This was but a drop in the bucket when compared with the Company’s multi-billion-dollar debt, but it was a positive sign of things to come. Not even ticket prices far higher than 1987’s speculative offering could deter Americans and Cubans alike from purchasing tickets in substantial numbers. It’s also important to note that the ticket sales until 1998 were based on an expectation that the trains would not be able to run at full capacity due to work needed to bring the tunnel and terminals to completion.

As the final months and weeks ticked down to the grand opening, many of the tunnel’s systems were brought on line for the first time and the final bugs were ironed out. The brand-new I-95 extension to Boca Chica from Miami was opened fully to traffic for the first time, and drivers could now enjoy six uninterrupted lanes of asphalt between Miami and Boca Chica. Even this large expanse of road would eventually prove to be inadequate for traffic, and in the ten years since the tunnel’s opening, the highway has since been widened to eight lanes, with plans on the board for ten. Key West, which had gotten over its initial reluctance over the tunnel’s construction long before, planned a week-long gala celebration in commemoration, and even President Alexander, a firm opponent of the tunnel’s perceived waste, wasn’t above participating in the events.

With two weeks left to go before the tunnel’s opening, the entire construction crew and Tunnel Company were shaken by sad news from Havana. Andres Aguero, the grandfather of the tunnel project, had passed away at the age of 92. Since his removal from his position as the CEO of the Tunnel Company and stroke in 1988, he had been bedridden, confined to a hotel suite with a view of Havana Harbor where he had an excellent view of the ships of the construction fleet arriving and departing. Interestingly, both Manuel Cereijo and Carlito Gonzales saw fit to keep Aguero informed of every development of the construction process during their tenures as head of the Tunnel Company. When Aguero passed away on June 14, he died knowing that his dream would be reality.

Aguero’s death shook many of the long-time workers, particularly the Cuban workers, who saw Aguero as a grandfather figure. Many of the older workers, upon seeing a younger worker misbehaving or doing something incorrectly, would admonish the worker with the phrase, “Andres wouldn’t like it.” That was usually enough to get the worker to change his ways. The death, largely ignored in the American media but covered widely in Cuba, hung over the construction site like a cloud, tempering the imminent opening of the tunnel with a touch of sadness. The news also lent a touch of macabre humor to the repeated bugs that kept cropping up during the testing of various parts of the tunnel. Whenever something broke or went wrong, the person involved would simply shrug his or her shoulders and say, “Andres must’ve done it.”

With one week to go, Andres pulled his most spectacular prank during the powering up of the rail system within the tunnel. Megawatts of electricity were drawn into the tunnel during the first full power-up of the electric rail system. For five minutes, everything went smoothly. Sensors along the full hundred-mile length of track recorded correct voltages. In the sixth minute, something went wrong. A faulty piece of electric wire caused a short that tripped circuit breakers and caused a cascading chain of errors that resulted in fuses blown across the length of the tunnel, set three transformers on fire, and knocked out power to all of the Florida Keys south of the Miami-Dade county line.

Tunnel Company crews went into high gear to fix the problem. Hundreds of fuses had to be replaced, new transformers had to be installed, and the source of the initial problem had to be found and fixed. With over ten thousand miles of wiring in the tunnel, this was no small task. Fortunately for those involved, the short had left a gigantic scorch mark along the inside of the tunnel shell, and when workers began a foot-by-foot inspection of the wiring, it was easily observed. Unfortunately, it had taken three days of examination to reach that point in the search process.

With just four days left until the grand opening and still more repairs and tests to be done, Tunnel Company managers were in a frenzy. The short-circuit had left things in a complete mess. There simply wasn’t time to do everything that needed to be done and test everything that needed to be tested. Even working four 24-hour days wouldn’t be enough. The workers had to try, though. News of the catastrophe eventually filtered up to Carlito Gonzales and the rest of the Board of Directors of the Tunnel Company. Clearly, something had to be done. But what? The grand opening was in three days, and the tunnel wouldn’t be ready. It would be an absolute disaster to have an event and have no one be able to travel through the tunnel. That left only one solution – moving the concrete, unmovable deadline. In a unanimous vote, the Tunnel Company board of directors agreed to push the grand opening back for 24 hours. That would be enough time, they hoped, to get everything ready for the biggest day of their lives.

Those last five days saw thousands of men working around the clock to fix the damage that had been done and to conduct last-minute tests on everything from the electrical connections to the railroad track to the toilets in the passenger cars. The 24-hour delay was played up enormously in the global media, and CNN put together a quick series on “The Tunnel: Is it safe?” The Tunnel Company’s stock slumped on the news, and many investors held their breaths. If the delay was indicative of problems with the tunnel, and if it was followed by other delays, the future wouldn’t be bright for their investments. Still, most investors held on to their shares – by and large, they were in it for the long haul, and had decided a decade ago, after Black Tuesday, that they would see this thing through to the end.

The morning of July 2 dawned cloudy, and it seemed as if the ceremonies would be dampened by a rainstorm. But by 9:00 a.m., the clouds had parted and the sun was shining through. An hour later, when the ceremony began, the sky was brilliantly clear with white, wispy clouds soaring above Boca Chica. Speeches by every major participant in the project followed, but the heat of the day kept most of them thankfully brief. An estimated 100,000 people were on hand, cramming the island well beyond its capacity, to see President Lamar Alexander cut the ceremonial ribbon alongside the President of Cuba.

At 12:00 noon on July 2, 1997, the Florida Strait Tunnel was pronounced officially open. Twelve years of construction, twenty years of planning and imagination, and the effort of tens of thousands of men came to an end. Together, the United States and Cuba, with the assistance of foreign bankers, created the world’s second-largest single construction. Only the Great Wall of China was longer, and it had required hundreds of years to complete and required the sacrifice of tens of thousands of lives. Now, the tunnel would stand as a monument to human ingenuity and a triumph over impossible odds.

The passengers on the first train were the dignitaries who had participated in the ceremony as well as a select number of people who purchased advance tickets in 1987, over a decade previously. The first paying passenger was a gentleman from Bozeman, Montana, who had waited in line for six hours back in 1987 in order to be the first person to purchase a ticket. Over the next 12 hours, thousands of other passengers would travel the same route between Boca Chica and Hershey. To maximize the number of passengers traveling in the first week, no automobiles were transported until July 10. Trains ran entirely with passenger cars, and were shuttled to and from their destinations via buses.

The time spent working out procedures for maximizing efficiency in the loading and unloading process turned out to be well-spent. Although problems did develop – particularly from passengers who didn’t follow the carefully laid-out procedures – they were largely made good by the Tunnel Authority’s workers, who had undergone several months of training. Modifications were made to procedures based on the experience of those earlier travelers, and just as the tunnel’s workers had gradually improved the pace at which they built the tunnel, so too did the Tunnel Authority improve the speed with which passengers and cars could be loaded and unloaded.

The Boca Chica Terminal was finally completed in early 1999, almost two full years after the official opening. Most of the decorations and aesthetic features of the terminal were not yet installed at the time of the opening, and had to be completed as space and time allowed. Things as fundamental as the terminal’s bathrooms weren’t finished in July 1997, but were eventually completed before 1999.

The Tunnel faced the biggest challenge of its short life in September 1998 when Hurricane Georges struck the Florida Keys just north of Boca Chica. High winds, a high storm surge, and heavy rains wracked the Boca Chica Terminal and forced a halting of Tunnel operations. The halt didn’t come about due to safety concerns with the tunnel, but because high winds prevented automobile traffic from reaching Boca Chica from Miami. Though winds reached 105 miles an hour in Key West, the underground structure of the terminal escaped damage entirely. Large amounts of rainwater and seawater from the storm surge did enter the tunnel, the bilge space constructed below the terminal filled its purpose. Though it had never been intended to fill its function after the completion of construction, the bilge prevented seawater from flooding the tunnel itself and causing damage to the tracks.

Following the storm, improvements were made to the terminal to prevent further flooding and protect the tunnel against even larger storm surges from future storms. These improvements proved their worth during 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, when the Boca Chica Terminal was again struck by storm surge from a nearby hurricane.

The two storms stopped traffic for a brief time, but traffic continued to flow, and continues to flow at a staggering rate even today, a full decade after the opening of the tunnel to the general public. Ten million passengers a year pass through the tunnel annually, despite tolls higher than any other crossing on Earth. The Tunnel’s initial multi-billion-dollar price is now scheduled to be entirely paid off by 2030 if passenger rates continue at present levels. Improvements in efficiency and traffic flow have increased the amount of passengers able to funnel through the tunnel far beyond initial plans, but practical considerations have caused potential passenger capacity to level out.

Since its opening, the tunnel has inspired several similar projects. The success of the Suspended Immersed Tube design has inspired plans for tunnels across the Strait of Messina, connecting Spain and Morocco, and even plans for a tunnel connecting Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Such a tunnel would cut hours off the time needed to drive from the East Coast of the United States to Central America and South America. Central American investment would be crucial to such a project, but this is as yet unlikely to occur.

Regardless of what projects come after it, the Florida Strait Tunnel will stand as a pioneer in tunnel design and infrastructure improvement. Connecting Florida and Cuba, the tunnel has provided vacations for tens of millions of North Americans and has provided a massive injection of trade and commerce into the Cuban economy. The Jose Marti Towers, the twin 60-story “green” skyscrapers now rising into the air above Havana owe their existence as much to the tunnel as to the loans and workers integral to their construction.

But beyond even these grand projects, the story of the Florida Strait Tunnel is a story of individuals. The people who designed it, the workers who built it, the bankers and investors who paid for it, and the passengers who use it – they’ve all had their effect on the history of the Tunnel and its continued success. From the years of Henry Flagler and the Overseas Railway, the Florida Strait has been instrumental in advancing the technology of transportation and commerce. Now, and well into the future, engineers will look to the Florida Strait Tunnel as an example of what can be done when high technology is combined with big dreams.


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