PORT MANATEE -- The port is building a gate for giants.
Starting this spring, Port Manatee will put $1 million toward widening its southernmost entry point to accommodate heavy truck traffic and some of the largest machines built in Florida.
This week, the Manatee County Board of Commissioners approved disbursing $200,000 collected by a port tax increment financing district, or TIF, for use as matching funds for the work. The port received $750,000 toward the work in 2014 as part of a $1.8 million grant package. To use the money for expanding access at its South Dock Street entry point, the port had to come up with $250,000 of its own. The TIF money, plus a $50,000 gift from natural gas heat exchanger manufacturer Air Products, fulfills the requirement.
Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director, said the scope of work includes adding lanes to the current, narrow entry road at South Dock Street, expanding the small guard shack that controls access and building a long-promised bypass road for fuel terminal operator Vecenergy.
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"We will make the access control center larger and more modern to be able to be responsive for the increase in traffic," Buqueras said.
Construction is expected to begin in April and finish in September.
Air Products, which opened a manufacturing plant across the road from the port in early 2014, will benefit from the greater access capacity. The company builds heat exchangers for the natural gas indus
try that can reach the length of a football field. At the moment, the company has five smaller heat exchangers under construction at its Port Manatee plant that will eventually be shipped through the port. Mark Evans, the plant's manager, said these would make it through the gate as is. But future projects will need more room.
"These exchangers are going to get bigger and bigger," he said.
The exchangers cool natural gas to a point at which it becomes liquified, a process that is vital for shipping the resource.
Evans said Air Products chipped in some of its own cash for the South Dock Street project because it wanted the port to be able match the federal funds and make the improvements.
The part of the project that could help along the biggest piece of new business is the access road. It will allow Fort Lauderdale-based Vecenergy unfettered access to 238 acres it owns just south of the port without having to pass through the port's South Dock Street security checkpoint.
Vecenergy plans to build a petroleum tank farm and fuel terminal on the land. Richard Vogel, the company's director of environmental and regulatory affairs, said he learned of the TIF funding package this week.
The port project will build 800 feet of bypass between South Dock Street and southbound Reeder Road for Vecenergy's use.
The TIF from which the county commission authorized funding, the Port Manatee Improvement District, was created in 2009. The district includes thousands of acres largely bounded by the Hillsborough County line, Interstate 75 and Buckeye Road. It has collected about $216,000 over the past seven years.
Buqueras said the South Dock Street project funding marks the first time the port has withdrawn money from the TIF.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.