State may allow higher traffic level on I-10


Written by Joel Addington   


It’s not a done deal yet, but county officials say they’ve reached a tentative agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation that would pave the way for about 7 million square feet of industrial space in Baker County, which could also lead to roughly 9000 new jobs.

The understanding comes on the heels of a meeting with transportation officials in Tallahassee on September 13.

It means far less industrial space than hoped for when local officials and developers began lobbying Tallahassee to decrease the levels of service on I-10 in Baker County, but it’s something officials say they can live with.

“All the parties left the meeting a little disgusted, so we must be making progress,” Mr. Cone told county commissioners during their meeting September 16.

Lowering I-10’s level of service here would allow more traffic on the interstate before costly mitigation is required of developers.

Last January the county applied for an FDOT variance on the existing levels of service to make the area more attractive for industrial projects, two of which are already on the horizon.

Roberts Land & Timber Investment Corp. of Lake Butler is eager to build a project around the I-10 interchange at US 90, and another venture is being pursued by Texas-based Jackson-Shaw Co. just east of Macclenny and south of US 90.

However, these two projects alone aim to add 16 million square feet of industrial space, more than twice the amount the FDOT variance will permit before mitigation is required. And more developers are knocking at the door, said Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darryl Register.

A sense of urgency

“There’s quite a bit of interest,” he said. “I’ve personally talked to four different developers over the last six months that are looking [here].”

That’s likely due to Baker County’s close proximity to the Jacksonville port, which is undergoing an expansion to serve two Asian shipping lines expected to bring two million more containers to the region annually.

Developers hope to build the warehouse space to store those containers as they’re sorted and trucked across the country.

Mr. Register said the existing levels of service on I-10 allow developers to build 7 million square feet of industrial space today without incurring mitigation costs to widen the interstate or build parallel roads to take traffic off it.

But, he said, that would use up all the available capacity on I-10 and leave nothing for residential growth in the future.

The deal for the FDOT variance though, would allow for the 7 million square of industrial space without eliminating capacity for other types of development.

“With no change, the developer comes in, buys a property and develops it with four or five million square feet; but then he has to stop because there’s no more available capacity,” said Mr. Register. “Then they have to go through this 10-month [variance] process or pay some serious, serious mitigation money.”

What’s the deal mean?

Final figures are still being negotiated, but if the variance is granted, Planning Director Ed Preston said the area would gain several thousand additional daily “trips” of capacity on I-10 before mitigation kicks in, and a portion of those trips would be reserved for industrial growth.

Mr. Register put additional capacity from the variance at 12,600 trips, adding that 75 percent of those could be  reserved for job creation — industrial, office and retail space — with the remainder going to residential development.

“[Industrial developers] are more comfortable they can go further before they run into road blocks,” Mr. Register said of the deal’s impact. “No one is willing to invest millions if they can’t complete their project.”

In exchange for the variance, Mr. Preston said FDOT wants the county to adopt a number of planning measures aimed at relieving traffic on the interstate through developer-funded roads that run parallel to I-10.

Those transportation improvements are outlined in the county’s Thoroughfare Master Plan, which the Baker County Commission will need to add to the Comprehensive Plan, a document that governs development in the county.

In addition, the board must include the road projects identified in the thoroughfare plan, and how they will be funded, in the county’s Capital Improvement Plan.

“I don’t think they’re unreasonable,” Mr. Preston said of the variance conditions. “We can live with them.”

The county should be able to meet all of FDOT’s conditions and have the variance become effective by January 2009, said Mr. Cone.