January 27, 2021

transportation

Freight State

Florida's largest landowners are planning to capitalize by changing the way freight moves around the state.

Cynthia Barnett | 3/1/2010
CSX
[Photo: CSX]

When state lawmakers met in Tallahassee in December for a special session on rail, the headlines were all about passenger trains: The law that emerged from the session cinched the SunRail commuter system for central Florida, upped funding for south Florida’s Tri-Rail system, and set the stage for a long-coveted high-speed passenger train between Tampa and Orlando. A month later, when President Barack Obama came to Florida to award the initial $1.25 billion for the Tampa-Orlando link, the news again was about moving people.

But passenger trains are just part of the transportation story in Florida. Changes in the way freight moves around the peninsula could be even more significant for Florida’s future.

Changing global trade patterns, driven in part by the supersized cargo ships that soon will begin traveling through the widened Panama Canal, may create a boom in freight-related and light manufacturing industries in the state.

And five of the top 10 private landowners in the state are angling to cash in by developing integrated logistics centers (ILCs), facilities where containers of freight are moved from railcars to trucks and vice versa. Along with freight-handling facilities, the logistics centers — sometimes called "inland" logistics centers or "inland ports" — typically include warehouses, distribution centers and often manufacturing operations near a major rail line.

Among the biggest private landowners, Plum Creek Timber, St. Joe Co. and the Fanjul family of Palm Beach each wants to build its own ILC project. Lykes Bros. and A. Duda & Sons are collaborating on a center.

Meanwhile, CSX is building a big ILC in Winter Haven, and Hillwood Development is studying whether to include one at the Cecil Commerce Center, a shuttered Naval Air Station that the city of Jacksonville has turned into a 17,000-acre industrial and manufacturing center.

Todd Powell
Todd Powell is southern director of Plum Creek Timber. Now the largest landowner in the state, Plum Creek is helping to develop an inland port east of Lake City.? [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The private landowners share a goal of diversifying their companies. All want to rev up the development potential of their properties. Company executives also tout the projects as business catalysts that will help Florida out of this recession and arm it better to withstand the next one.

"When you look at the numbers, you see that Florida has an incredible opportunity," says Todd Powell, southern director for Plum Creek Timber, the state’s largest private landowner, who sees the possibility of serving growing consumer markets not only in Florida but north up the eastern seaboard and south into the Caribbean and Latin America.

Behind the ILC frenzy is a shift in the way freight is moving globally. Giant container ships with goods from China and other international suppliers typically have entered the U.S. in California. Goods bound for eastern U.S. markets then were loaded onto trains or 18-wheelers and transported across the country.

In the past decade, more container traffic has begun flowing through Atlantic ports, especially in New York, but also in Norfolk, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga. Florida has gotten only a slice of the surge — in part because it has 14 competing ports rather than one powerhouse ["Florida Ports Racing to Handle Giant Cargo Ships," July 2008, FloridaTrend.com]. The most recent statistics from the Florida Ports Council show that half of all consumer goods imported to Florida from Asia still come through western seaports — while another 20% come through the Port of Savannah, which serves Florida markets down to Orlando.

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