TAMPA — The Port of Tampa is the region's gas station.
It is the primary supplier of the gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel and oil that keeps 9 million people from Tampa Bay to Orlando to Naples on the move. The region is dependent on that gas station — but the infrastructure is 45 years old.
It needs to be replaced, and on Wednesday the Tampa Port Authority unveiled its successor: a new $56 million petroleum terminal complex that will keep the region's cars and planes fueled for decades to come.
"It is a one-of-a-kind facility," said Port of Tampa chief executive officer Paul Anderson. "It will bring sustainability to our state and our region for generations."
The project is the largest capital investment in port history, and the first phase is already done. The port split the cost with the state of Florida, which contributed $28 million. Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said West and Central Florida would grind to a halt without it.
"This project is kind of unique in the sense that this is our livelihood," he said. "This project basically supplies gasoline fuel and passenger (plane) fuel for state of Florida residents.
"You would not be able to use our beautiful infrastructure if this pipeline were shut."
The ribbon-cutting was held on a catamaran floating in the channel alongside the new complex. Anderson and Prasad were joined by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa; Rep. Mark Danish, D-Tampa; and Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman.
"It's state of the art," Young said of the new terminal, "and it's going to put us on the map as we start expanding these markets."
The new petroleum terminal is being built on top of the old one at the Richard E. Knight Pier, or REK Pier. The thin concrete pier was built in 1968.
It took two years to finish the first phase, which ended this week with the completion of two new berths: Berth 222 and Berth 223. Both are now operational. The first fuel-bearing ship to unload at Berth 223 is scheduled for Nov. 11. Berth 222 is set to get its first ship on Nov. 18.
The next phases of the project will see a third berth — Berth 227 — completed sometime in June 2014. That's when the old REK Pier is also set to be torn down.
The Port of Tampa receives about 500 petroleum ships a year and unloads 2.4 billion gallons annually. But now it will be able to handle bigger ships and even more capacity.
Most of the fuel is sent out on tanker trucks. But the terminal also pumps product to the Central Florida region — including Orlando International Airport — through two pipelines.
The most innovative aspect of the facility is the special partnership arrangement the port hammered out with the companies using the old REK Pier.
Each company has its own infrastructure for unloading ships. One ship could carry liquid cargo for three different companies, but could only unload that specific product at each company's berth.
"Which means that sometimes a ship comes in and it has to move three times to unload," said port engineer Roy Wilber.
That inefficiency is gone. The new berths were designed to unload any product for any of the companies. That's why there's 38,000 feet, or seven miles, of pipes connecting the berths to a central station, from which the liquid products will be sent to the appropriate company.
The companies — Kinder Morgan Liquid Terminals LLC; TPSI Terminals LLC; Murphy Oil USA Inc.; and Buckeye Terminals LLC — all signed a 25-year agreement with the port to jointly operate, govern and maintain the facility. Company representatives, who attended Wednesday's ceremony, declined to comment.
"With the help of just about everyone here, we found a way to do this," Anderson said. "Believe me, this was not easy. If it was easy, another port would have done this, other companies would have done this."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, firstname.lastname@example.org or @jthalji on Twitter.