A bird’s-eye view of Port Manatee
The long-dormant idea of building a connector road between Port Manatee and Interstate 75 resurfaced Thursday, when a Florida Department of Transportation official presented a study of port operations, during a Manatee County Port Authority meeting.
The possibility of building an I-75 connector road has been in limbo since 2014, when FDOT concluded there wasn’t enough traffic to justify the project, which was estimated to cost $328 million five years ago.
Since then, the port has become much busier. For the six-month period ending March 31, the port set a cargo record with new highs for total tonnage and container and bulk cargo, according to figures released Thursday.
Among the findings presented by Keith Robbins, FDOT district freight and seaport coordinator, was the need to determine the “why, when and how” of restarting the 2008 project development and environment I-75 connector study, possibly in five to 10 years.
The re-emergence of the connector road concept was greeted with enthusiastic conversation by port authority members.
“Piney Point Road or Buckeye Road, I believe will be the corridor to I-75,” authority member Betsy Benac said.
Authority chair Vanessa Baugh said it is not only the port authority that has been in limbo because of the connector road issue, but property owners along a potential road path.
“The property owners are sitting there waiting. The county needs to take the first step,” Baugh said. “It behooves all of us to look at that and come up with some decisions.”
Laying out a potential route for the connector road was beyond the scope of the study he presented Thursday, Robbins said.
Though the connector road may still be no closer to reality than it was in 2008 or 2014, Robbins did have a gift for the authority when he reported that county staff have agreed to rehabilitate the crumbling Piney Point Road between the CSX railroad tracks up to the entrance gate of Port Manatee.
“Piney Point Road needs repair now and will need to be expanded to accommodate future growth,” Robbins said.
The work on Piney Point Road is scheduled to be completed in the next year and will serve as a stop-gap measure until FDOT can work with the county in the future on more comprehensive road improvements.
In other business, port authority members learned that the Army Corps of Engineers has recommended $5.3 million in funding to dredge to the south channel serving berths 12 and 14, the port’s southern-most of its 10 berths.
The dredging is needed to maintain the 40-foot deep channel and ensure ship traffic can safely travel there.
An Army Corps official explained that several other Florida ports — in the Miami and Jacksonville area — also are vying for dredging funds and that any allocation would have to pass muster in Congress.
The FDOT study found that any capital improvement projects at Port Manatee should focus on general cargo and container growth opportunities.
The reports also said that there should be reduced focus on RO/RO cargo (roll-on, roll off trucks and other vehicles), ferry and small cruise ship operations.
Carlos Buqueras, the port’s executive director, has previously said he would welcome a return of cruise service to Port Manatee as a way to diversify operations. The Regal Empress cruise ship operated out of Port Manatee from 1993 to 2003.
Buqueras has been an advocate for improved transportation facilities to facilitate truck traffic to and from Port Manatee, where business growth has been strong in recent years.
Figures released Thursday showed that total tons of cargo handled at the port in the last six months was up 14 percent, to 5,132,864 tons. Containerized cargo was up 34 percent. Dry bulk cargo tons were up 32 percent and liquid bulk cargo tons were up 11 percent.
Port officials attribute much of the gain in containerized cargo activity to a more-than-doubling of juice volumes coming into the port in specially fitted container units. Also contributing to increased container volumes is longtime tenant Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc.
On the dry bulk front, volumes of fly ash, salt and cement moving across Port Manatee docks more than doubled from the year-earlier figures, while liquid bulk gains were spurred by increases in gasoline, bunker fuels, diesel and ethanol, as well as not-from-concentrate juices.