Port Manatee at heart of transportation authority vision

BRADENTON -- Manatee County commissioners were polite but restrained Tuesday after a Tampa attorney pitched a regional transportation authority that he said could attract world trade to Port Manatee and “drastically diversify” Florida’s economy to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Saying Manatee’s port could be at the apex of new world trade routes that will be up for grabs once the expansion of the Panama Canal allows mega-container ships to float through, Tampa attorney Frederick L. Busack told the board: “You guys are in a remarkable position.”

Busack envisioned the port as a hub in a Heartland Regional Transportation Authority system that would attract gigantic cargo ships able to navigate the Panama Canal when canal expansion is complete in 2014.

The authority also would need to improve other ports, all of Florida’s rail lines and build one new north-south and one new east-west toll road, Busack told the commission.

“None of these folks are talking about ports alone, because it wouldn’t work alone,” Busack said. “You must have roads and rail, too.” Commissioner Carol Whitmore lauded what she termed “good, fresh ideas,” and Commissioner Larry Bustle noted, “It seems so obvious it needs to be done.”

Commissioner Joe McClash foresaw political obstacles stemming from the broad powers such an authority would require, but suggested some of the ideas might be accomplished without forming an authority.

Board members said the issue would be aired at an upcoming port meeting, and they hoped to also arrange a workshop to which as many potential players as possible would be invited.

The creation of an authority powered by a public-private partnership would provide the clout to do what it takes to make Florida competitive with other venues that also want to lure world shippers to their ports, Busack said.

“If Florida could get it together and manage to network its various ports, would you be among those who want to build these things?” Busack queried. “We need to get everybody together in one format.”

Currently, only one U.S. port on the east coast -- Norfolk, Va. -- has facilities deep enough for the big container vessels.

But, according to Busack, Manatee is blessed with features other ports lack.

“You have the best potential from a straight logistics standpoint to be developed into a hub port,” he said.

He ticked off some of the port’s assets:

n It is the closest U.S. deepwater seaport to the Panama Canal.

n It would be the easiest of all Florida ports to turn into a hub.

n The Skyway Bridge is tall enough that mega-ships could get under it.

n Manatee County still has plenty of room to expand.

“You can have all the major trade routes coming into both sides of the state,” he said. “Three main port developers are interested in this idea.”

If Florida ports would work together instead of competing, they might lure shippers away from places like Freeport, Bahamas, which is a major transshipment center, Busack said.

At Freeport, cargo is transferred from big ships to smaller ones, a costly step; it would be unnecessary if Florida could accommodate giant container vessels, he said.

The area’s pluses are quite apparent to the staff at Port Manatee as well, according to Steve Tyndal, the port’s senior director of trade development and special projects.

“We believe we’re in the perfect position, too,” said Tyndal, who was not at the commission meeting.

He said that, to his knowledge, port officials had not been directly approached to participate in any of the pre-planning for a regional authority, but added after talking to a reporter, “I like some of the things he had to say, it obviously requires a lot more study and analysis.”

“I’m certain it would be accurate to say we would welcome establishing a dialogue, and working with him to see what kind of synergies are apparent and how we can move Manatee into a favorable position,” Tyndal said.

An extensive analysis of the port’s potential is already underway, and its first phase is slated for unveiling during a March 17 port meeting, Tyndal said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7031.