PORT MANATEE -- Plans to build a road connecting Interstate 75 and Port Manatee, already on hold for four years, may not see the light of day until the port's gates start backing up with a lot more traffic.
The Port Manatee Connector, a planned construction project once estimated to cost as much as $328 million, has grown so old on the vine it has ceased to be a priority on state and regional transportation plans. Billy Hattaway, commissioner of the Florida Department of Transportation's District 1, is considering putting plans for the connector into limbo because traffic needed to justify the road isn't there.
That status, say port officials, could leave Port Manatee without a dedicated I-75 connection for years. And it comes just as the port prepares for "exponential" growth, warns Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.
The news came to Manatee Port Authority Commissioner Larry Bustle in a recent conversation with Hattaway, who said he is looking to remove the project from the state's long-range transportation plan to make room for projects of greater need.
Under official state consideration since 2008, the roughly 5-mile connector
cial traffic between the port and one of Florida's primary north-south routes, I-75, bypassing local arterials and Interstate 275. The port and the state began planning the connector to stay ahead of a hoped-for jump in port business. But shortly after starting the project development process six years ago, the economy fell flat. According to state and port officials, so did port traffic levels, which put the project on hold.
"With the traffic projected out there it's just not feasible," said Tony Sherrard, FDOT project manager in charge of the connector study.
Port traffic to and from I-75 is routed along U.S. 41, I-275 and, to a lesser extent, Moccasin Wallow Road.
Now, with a $72 million rebuild of the I-75-University Parkway interchange taking priority for state money in the Manatee area, port authority commissioners want to reclaim the connector's viability, or at least get FDOT to suspend or finish a planning process dating back to 2005. A planning development and environmental study for the connector was scheduled to be finished by next year, but state officials say that won't happen.
"We're kind of at a standoff with them," said port Commissioner Betsy Benac.
Of present concern is the port's ability to obtain up to 272 acres of right of way for the connector, something it can't do without a chosen route or federal funding. Previously, the port had made agreements with some landowners to set aside room for the connector, Benac said.
But land use in the area is changing, as has the ownership of many larger parcels since the housing market crash. At this point, port officials don't know where the road would run or whether the port can obtain the land needed to build it. A project development study for the road has identified up to six possible connector routes.
Bustle said the port authority and Manatee County aren't giving up on the project. Port commissioners voted 5-2 last week to hold a work session this fall or early next year with county staff to determine how to keep the connector alive. Members of the port authority serve on the port's board and as Manatee County commissioners.
The worst thing that could happen at this point, Bustle said, would be for FDOT to finish the project development study. Current traffic levels might lead the study to conclude there is no need to build the road, effectively ending the project.
"It might be better to just let it lie and not push it," Bustle said.
Robin Stublen, a District 1 FDOT spokesman, said while it is true studies of Port Manatee's traffic don't warrant building a road in addition to those already serving the port, there is no danger that FDOT will terminate the project out of hand. However, with the project dormant for so long, FDOT is under pressure from the Federal Highway Commission to either start building or take the connector off its project rolls. The commission is the lead federal agency on the project.
If the connector comes off the transportation projects list, Stublen said, "it can be revived at any time." FDOT and the highway commission have yet to officially commit funds to the project.
Bustle, who along with Benac is a member of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, wants to bring the connector issue back to the port authority and the board of county commissioners to reaffirm it is still a "very high priority."
He also wants to lobby the MPO to give the road a high position on its work list. The connector is not on the MPO's current major improvement project priorities list.
Buqueras has repeatedly cautioned the port authority to be prepared for sudden growth in business and to plan needed infrastructure ahead of time.
He said any new business comes with the promise of "exponential growth," meaning the demands on port lands and the surrounding area could grow very quickly.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.