PORT MANATEE -- A proponent of expanding South Florida's cruise ship trade says digging deep is the best way to give giant ships unable to fit under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge enough air and water space to bring passengers to Port Manatee and Tampa Bay's other ports.
He's not talking about a deeper channel for ships to navigate.
Instead of sailing boats under the traffic span, Neil Consentino wants to route cars and trucks through a tunnel. Cosentino has already pitched his tunnel ideal to the Tampa Port Authority.
Speaking to the Manatee County Port Authority Board last week, the perennial candidate for Hillsborough County commissioner said routing Interstate 275 traffic underwater into a tunnel for part of the Tampa Bay crossing is the best alternative to state-authored proposals to either build a new port seaward of the Skyway bridge or tear the bridge down and build a taller one.
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His design templates come from the 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, which give ships room to sail while providing necessary vehicle traffic links. The idea is a departure from the new harbor and new bridge plans offered by the Florida Department of Transportation. FDOT proposed the ideas in a July 8 report chronicling Tampa Bay's unsuitability to host a new generation of super-sized cruise ships given the Skyway's height limitation. Many new cruise ships exceed the maximum 180 feet of air clearance under the bridge, thus cannot sail to Port Tampa Bay or Port Manatee.
Cosentino said building a tunnel to replace the eastern portion of the bridge would give ships the unlimited air space and deep draft clearance needed to reach either port.
Emphasizing he is not an engineer, Cosentino gave no cost estimate for the project. FDOT estimates the cost of demolishing and replacing the Skyway bridge at $2 billion. Building a new cruise port would cost slightly less than $650 million, according
to the FDOT.
Cosentino said the tunnel could be seamlessly connected to the Skyway bridge when finished, thus avoiding the interruption in service replacing the bridge would cause. It would also keep cruise revenues going to port facilities already built on the bay.
The actual construction, he said, would involve dredging a shipping channel, then either excavating a groove in which tunnel sections would be assembled or drilling the tunnel through sea floor rock.
Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore said she appreciated the "out-of-the-box" thinking on a problem the state and its port partners need to solve.
"We do realize if we don't do something on the west coast of Florida, the state will lose billions of dollars in the future," she said.
Doing nothing is one option put forth by FDOT. The consequences include losing as many as 35 million cruise passengers in the long term, according to the report.
Port authority member Vanessa Baugh was particularly intrigued with Cosentino's proposition because she grew up in the Chesapeake Bay area and traveled the bridge-tunnel after it was built in 1963. She said nearby Port Norfolk benefited greatly from the direct connection across the mouth of the bay.
Whitmore said solving the giant cruise ship issue may be the first project Port Manatee tackles as a member of a new regional leadership structure being coordinated between all three Tampa Bay ports. Port Manatee has served as a cruise ship destination in the past and still retains a cruise terminal on its property.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.