On Monday, dozens of representatives from the public and private sector gathered at Port Manatee for a “freight and economic development summit” organized by the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
They discussed the importance of maintaining and expanding a well-integrated network of road, rail and vessel modes of transport for cargo coming into and out of Florida, as well as coming from in-state suppliers to in-state destinations.
As an example of the importance of “a strategic system,” Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras noted that Hurricane Matthew recently closed seaports on Florida’s east coast — bringing shipments of petroleum to a halt. Gas stations in evacuation zones risked closing.
“Guess which port supplied them with fuel?” Buqueras said. Tanker trunks departed from Port Manatee and crossed the state to keep gas stations in the storm’s path open or to enable them to reopen.
Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac said Port Manatee (which shipped 6 million tons of cargo last year) should have an increasingly major role in freight movement for Florida. Unlike other ports in Florida, it is not landlocked in an urban area and has thousands of acres in the vicinity for new businesses — and it has easy access to rail and major highways.
“We have lots of opportunities for development,” Benac said.
The federal government recently passed legislation that calls for states to work on strategies pertaining to freight movement.
For its part, the Florida Department of Transportation will soon accept nominees for a statewide freight advisory committee “so we aren’t doing planning in a vacuum,” said Rickey Fitzgerald, manager of the FDOT’s Rail Office.
The MPO board, which consists of local elected officials such as mayors and county commissioners, is expected to start including freight movement in its decision-making as well. The MPO prioritizes state and federally funded transportation projects in the bi-county area.
With Florida’s full-time resident, seasonal resident and visitor counts only expected to grow, those consumers will need more and more commodities that the transportation network must somehow get to store shelves.
Tisha Keller, vice president of the Florida Trucking Association, said that $700 billion industry, which creates one out of every 23 jobs in the state, handles about 80 percent of freight in Florida now and faces several challenges.
The trucking industry is finding it harder to find qualified drivers to hire.
Truckers are required by law to rest after driving a specified number of hours. Yet they often find it increasingly difficult to find a place to park for several hours and keep themselves, and their cargo, safe.
Keith Robbins, FDOT’s freight coordinator for this part of Florida, said the agency is looking at how many truck parking spaces are available on the interstates and other major highways as well as at privately operated truck stops — and what state- or local government-owned properties may be suitable for truck parking.
One option is to approach shopping centers that are closed at night about letting trucks use their empty parking lots during certain hours, Robbins suggested.
Robert Richardson, who oversees transportation for Bealls department stores, said that company (which is Manatee’s third largest employer with 1,694 on its local payroll) relies on rail and trucks to get its products to stores in 17 states. It contracts with private truckers to haul its trailers and is aware that they are facing rising insurance premiums, which will eventually translate into costs having to be passed down to consumers.