By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT
Lacking room for waterfront expansion, South Florida’s Port of Palm Beach is looking West to vast open acreages with a plan for an intermodal logistics center that could help alleviate coastal rail and roadway congestion while providing jobs in an economically challenged portion of Palm Beach County.
‘We’re not the first to think of this concept,’ said Port of Palm Beach Executive Director Lori A. Baer, citing inland port successes in Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia, ‘but we’re the first, we think, to figure out how to apply it to South Florida.’
Indeed, in North Florida, Jacksonville has brought a growing number of distribution centers to the Interstate 10 corridor that runs westward from the port area.
But the Palm Beach plan is unusual in that it calls for an integrated complex to be developed more than 30 miles from the nearest Interstate highway. The proposed development area is sufficiently inland that it could move a significant amount of truck and rail traffic westward, averting the heavily congested, highly populated I-95 corridor closer to the Atlantic Coast.
While lacking immediate Interstate access, the area proposed is near the intersection of the US 27/US 441 North-South corridor and the East-West traverse of State Route 80 between I-95 and I-75. Utilization of existing rail infrastructure and its augmentation with some $80 million of new tracks would add to the location’s attractiveness for big-box retailers and others, according to Baer.
Community leaders in the Tri-Cities area near the southeast corner of Lake Okeechobee, including the cities of Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay, have shown their support for the plan, which they see as a generator of employment in an area that recently has seen a downturn in the sugar industry. Local industries, from sugar to cement, also are in favor of the idea, as is the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) of Palm Beach County.
A Florida Department of Transportation feasibility study, which would provide an estimate of project costs, will begin shortly, slated for completion by the end of this year.
‘From the Port of Palm Beach standpoint,’ Baer said, ‘we think that this is a very significant part of our future for the mid- and long-term, because we don’t see any other place to expand.
‘The inland complex is critical to our port, but the beneficiaries are many,’ she added.
In addition to shifting rail and road traffic to a less-populated area and providing much-needed jobs, the inland complex hopes to afford a central staging site for military and hurricane-related disaster operations, plus a connecting point between at least five major Florida ports.
Those ports, from South to North, include the Port of Miami-Dade, Broward County’s Port Everglades, Port of Palm Beach, Tampa Bay’s Port Manatee and the Port of Tampa. Tampa, which, like Port Manatee, is on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is the farthest from the site, about 200 miles to the northwest of the Tri-Cities.
The notion of a centralized intermodal connecting point for meeting a significant portion of Florida’s port-related transportation demands is a concept that could help level the playing field for Sunshine State ports. Florida ports are not affiliated through a statewide port authority, yet must compete with those in surrounding states that are joined through such authorities.
Palm Beach port officials began looking some 40 miles westward from Riviera Beach after acknowledging that the port’s 153-acre waterfront site offers virtually no room for expansion. Not unlike other ports, it is grappling with handling increasing cargo activity (in its case, serving the Caribbean) while being crowded by commercial and residential development that makes obtaining additional land in the waterfront area unfeasible.
If nearby land were available, however, its development for transportation logistics purposes