MANATEE -- Raising the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, or building a new port west of it to accommodate cruise ships too large to fit under it now are among the possibilities addressed in a "pre-feasibility" study of Tampa Bay ports.
The $151,488 study of ports in Manatee County, St. Petersburg and Tampa will be finished by the end of the year, according to Robin Stublen, spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
The largest cruise ships can carry up to 6,400 passengers and 2,000 crew members already, and they're only expected to grow bigger in the future, said Carlos Buqueras, Port Manatee executive director.
"A majority of the new cruise ships being construct
ed today and in the future will not fit under the Skyway Bridge," Stublin emailed to the Herald. "Given the economic impact from the cruise business on the region, the (FDOT) wants to look into possibilities for mitigating possible future negative impacts on the loss of this cruise business in the region, including whether constructing a new terminal outside of the Skyway Bridge, or perhaps even raising the bridge, should be considered."
Bridges have been raised to accommodate ships, but it is a costly and time-consuming process. The road bed of Bayonne Bridge in New York, for instance, is being raised 63 feet to 215 feet in a $743.3 million project started several years ago.
Asked if the FDOT study contemplates a new port along the west coast of Pinellas County, Stublen said no location has been identified.
"If further study is done, all feasible locations west of the Skyway bridge will be considered," he wrote.
The study commissioned by FDOT is called the Tampa Bay Cruise Port Pre-Feasibility Study.
Port Manatee board members were confused about the study because neither their port nor St. Petersburg's berths cruise ships; only the Port of Tampa does.
Port Manatee representatives never asked for the study, and were dismayed by recent visits from FDOT Assistant Secretary Richard Biter, who wanted to discuss port consolidation despite their stated opposition to any merger with their bigger neighbor in Tampa.
Local officials told lawmakers Wednesday the port's continued independence is among their top legislative priorities this year and received immediate pledges from two area legislators to support their cause.
A. Paul Anderson, Tampa Port Authority director and chief executive officer, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Asked whether the study was conducted with consolidation in mind, or whether it addresses a separate issue, Stublen e-mailed: "The Department of Transportation, including Assistant Secretary Biter, is not advocating port consolidation. While all of Florida ports are independent entities, the state invests in port projects and has a duty to the taxpayers to ensure those investments bring the best return possible to the region and the state."
Tampa Bay ports share a common channel, and are within close proximity, he noted.
"Assistant Secretary Biter has spoken with port executives and commissioners from the Tampa Bay region about possible advantages from port cooperation," he wrote. "More coordination of port investments could enhance the ability for Tampa Bay to better compete, as a whole, with other large Gulf markets, such as Mobile and Houston, in attracting new domestic and international business."
Biter talked about consolidation as a possible option, but an option nonetheless, along with joint efforts for cooperation, said Buqueras.
"The board, in their last action, said they would oppose consolidation, but welcome cooperation," Buqueras added.
Buqueras said he knew some of the experts working on the study, performed by the respected firm of Bermello Ajamil & Partners Inc. He said Port Manatee officials also are serving on a statewide committee to help review the study's findings.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.