Study offers options to handle cruise ships too big to sail under Sunshine Skyway Bridge

skennedy@bradenton.comJuly 3, 2014 

MANATEE -- A draft report addressing what to do when cruise ships are too large to sail beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is designed to "get everyone singing off the same song sheet," a top transportation agency official said Wednesday.

"What we want to do is first recognize the Tampa Bay region has an infrastructural limitation to it -- the Skyway Bridge," said Richard Biter, assistant secretary for intermodal system development for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The report looks at options Tampa Bay leaders might consider, including those who operate ports at Manatee, St. Petersburg and Tampa, Biter told the Bradenton Herald.

"It's a huge impact for the whole region," he added. "If megaships can't get in here, they'll sail someplace else; in all likelihood, Florida will lose out."

Competitors for cruise-ship traffic, he said, include Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans;

and Galveston, Texas.

The preliminary study, expected to be superseded by a final version in a few days, notes the air draft of most new ships now exceeds the height limit of the Sunshine Skyway bridge at 180 feet.

It offers the following options:

• Do nothing and only receive vessels that fit into the present air draft envelope.

• Build a new port seaward of the bridge.

• Replace the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

Although Tampa's port is the only local one now hosting cruise ships, Port Manatee is looking at opportunities to berth smaller cruise ships and passenger ferries to ply routes between Manatee County and Cuba, said Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.

Asked what the study might mean for Port Manatee, Buqueras said: "It recognizes the importance of the cruise industry to the region as a whole, and to Port Manatee," which at one time did accommodate cruise ships.

"The outcome of the report will determine the future of the industry for the area and the investments needed to relocate the cruise industry seaward of the bridge," said Buqueras. "They're looking potentially at both Pinellas County and Manatee County" as possible sites for a new seaward port, built on a manmade island west of the Skyway.

The new cruise facility could cost $632 million to $647 million, the study said.

Other alternatives include demolishing the Skyway Bridge and building a new one for an estimated $2 billion; raising the deck of the bridge; or demolishing and replacing a bridge section, at a cost of $1.5 billion for each of the latter two options.

Asked whether infrastructure projects would be paid for by taxpayers or the cruise industry, Biter said it could be a combination, depending upon the project.

"We're not even at the point where we're talking dollars," he said. "It's a prefeasibility study. We're not coming forth with any recommendations. Let's get everybody looking at the same set of facts. It will be up to elected leaders of the Tampa Bay region to come in and say what it is they want to do."

A final version of the study will include comments made by port directors across the state.

Buqueras said his comments center around forecasting data such as revenue potential, number of passengers in 20 years and capital investments needed to build infrastructure to accommodate giant ships.

Last year, FDOT commissioned the Miami consulting firm of Bermello Ajamil & Partners to compile the $151,488 Tampa Bay Cruise Port Pre-Feasibility Study.

Cruise line passengers and crews spent more than $7 billion in Florida in 2012, and the industry also provides thousands of jobs across the state, the study found.

"Florida has long held the distinction of being the No. 1 U.S. cruise state in terms of passenger sailings and economic impacts," according to the report.

South Florida, however, now garners most cruise ship traffic, noted state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota.

"If lawmakers deciding where to appropriate dollars for a project like this -- if we're going to spend this kind of money -- is there going to be a return on the investment for our citizens?" Steube asked.

Manatee port officials have been invited with those from Tampa Bay's two other ports to attend a meeting Aug. 13 in St. Petersburg to discuss planning efforts, strategies and investments underway to drive port growth, according to a letter signed by FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad.

The discussion will focus on identifying areas for possible coordination among the three Tampa Bay seaports.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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