Tampa, Florida, has a cruise ship problem. The newer generation of “mega-ships” cannot fit beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which limits cruise ships to a maximum height of 180 feet from the top of the waterline. But the newest cruise ships sit as high as 225 feet above the waterline.
Cruise ships sailing in and out of Tampa Bay generate more than $380 million in annual economic activity for the area and help support up to 2,000 jobs. But saving that local industry could cost hundreds of millions — and maybe even a billion or two — in local, state and federal tax dollars, according to a $150,000 state study.
This means a difficult choice for Tampa Bay leaders after the Florida Department of Transportation released its long anticipated and oft-delayed study of the local cruise ship market on Tuesday. "I think it reaffirms what we've always known," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "There are no inexpensive solutions."
The problem facing Tampa Bay, and other communities across the country, is that the new cruise ships would never be able to sail unimpeded to the cruise ship terminals in downtown Tampa's Channel District. But those are the ships that the industry is rapidly adopting. There may not be enough of the smaller, older ships in the future to dock in Tampa.
"Over 90 percent of the future cruise ship fleet will not be able to come under the Skyway bridge," it is estimated.
The $150,000 report listed options for dealing, or not dealing, with the coming problem.
Raising the Skyway Bridge
Officials could choose to build a new Skyway bridge, or raise part of it, so that mega cruise ships could pass beneath it. Building a new Skyway (which was finished in 1987) would cost $2 billion. It also would take two years to tear down the current bridge and four years to build a new one.
The span could be raised, but at a cost of up to $1.5 billion that would leave it closed for years and block motor vehicle traffic between Pinellas and Manatee counties for an extended period and interfere with shipping routes to Port Tampa Bay.
The Skyway is an interstate highway. That means federal money and approval would be required.
Richard Biter, FDOT's assistant secretary for intermodal systems development, said he could imagine the reaction of federal officials: "You have a perfectly good bridge with a 30-year lifespan left and you just want to tear it down?"
But even if this expensive solution is selected, there is another expensive issue; Tampa Bay's shipping channels are too narrow for ships to pass by each other side-by-side. The bottom of the bay would have to be dredged, which is expensive, difficult and highly regulated.
Mega cruise ships are also too big to swing around in the turning basin in Sparkman Channel leading up to the cruise terminal. Tugboats typically swing ships around so they can back into the terminal. Ships longer than 965-feet can't be rotated there. Most new ships are longer than 1,000 feet.
The New Port Option
There's another option that would cost only about $700 million: Build a new cruise ship port west of the Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay, on land owned by the Tampa Port Authority, which runs the cruise ship terminals. But that would have to overcome environmental challenges.
The report projected that a new cruise terminal would include a 100,000-square-foot building on up to 58 acres with a six-level parking structure that has up to 9,000 spaces. Construction would take place near Pinellas' lucrative and world-famous beaches.
"You cannot destroy that," Buckhorn said, calling the beaches the area's "bread and butter."
The cheapest option laid out in the report: Do nothing. Port Tampa Bay could settle for becoming a port of call for older, smaller ships. But Raul Alfonso, chief commercial officer of the Tampa Port Authority, said that would spell the end of Tampa Bay's cruise ship industry.
The FDOT report laid out some tough choices just as the local cruise industry is poised to enjoy a record year: 1.1 million passengers are expected to pass through Tampa on 239 cruises in 2014. The Tampa Port Authority got 22 percent of its revenue from cruise ships in the last fiscal year: $9.5 million out of total revenue of $44.1 million.
The state does not endorse any option. The next step would be for bay area leaders to ask FDOT to conduct another study to evaluate which of the above options is best.