TAMPA — For truckers, time means money. And at least some of those hauling freight from Port Tampa Bay are saving time by using the year-old toll road connecting Interstate 4 and the Selmon Expressway.
The $420 million connector is saving some of them enough time every two days that they can fit in an extra trip from the port to distribution centers in Polk County and elsewhere, said Art Perry of Landstar Trucking Logistics Co.
And as more distribution centers move into central Florida and others expand, using the smooth connection between the port and the interstate, versus rumbling down Ybor City’s narrow roadways, is a definite plus, said Perry, agent manager for the trucking company, which uses the connector 20 to 40 times each workday.
Already, traffic on the connector, which opened Jan. 6, is exceeding the projected 28,000 trips a day, said Christa Deason, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation’s turnpike system. Traffic on the roadway has increased from 15,000 trips a day in January to more than 30,000 a day as of October, she said.
Ninety-one percent of the daily traffic on the interstate connector is made up of passenger cars, box trucks and other single-axle vehicles, Deason said. But big-truck traffic will increase over time. By 2035, daily trips are expected to grow to 50,000.
Even with a toll required to take the connector, the time savings makes it a worthwhile route, Perry said.
Once modifications are made to the old truck route, which includes 21st and 22nd streets in Ybor City, even more tractor-trailers will begin using the connector, Deason said, because trucks will be banned from using the city route.
Before the connector opened, hundreds of freight-hauling trucks rumbled daily past the historic Columbia Restaurant and other Ybor City businesses, creating clouds of dust and rattling windows. Now that most of the big trucks are using the connector, FDOT and Tampa are working on a $10 million “urban modification” project to narrow the roads and add sidewalks, landscaping and new streetlights. The changes will make the streets more pedestrian-friendly.
Port Tampa Bay officials say diverting trucks onto the new connector is a business-friendly move.
“There have been several significant events that will make the connector even more important,” said Wade Elliott, vice president of marketing and business development for the port. “Probably the one that hits home for me is the recent news that Florida has overtaken New York as the third most populous state. From a cargo perspective, that’s a big, big deal.”
Elliott said this is the fastest-growing region in the state and has the largest concentration of distribution centers in Florida, including Rooms to Go, Haverty’s and now two new Amazon fulfillment centers, one in Ruskin and one in Lakeland.
“We are making sure we are positioned to handle this growing market that’s right in our own backyard,” Elliott said. With the growth of people and goods, the port’s container import business will grow, he said.
“We’ve ordered two new container cranes, scheduled for delivery in early 2016, so it’s all coming together,” Elliott said.
FDOT is paying $24 million for the two new gantry cranes, which can reach farther across today’s wider ships to off-load containers.
The connector road is a fast, efficient route for trucks to move those containers between the port and I-4, he said. “As this market grows, that becomes increasingly more important.”