Port Manatee

Study offers options for cruise ships too tall for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

MANATEE -- The final version of a study on what to do when cruise ships are too large to sail beneath the Sunshine Skyway Bridge does not make any specific recommendations, but attempts to "bring the best data together," state officials said Tuesday.

The study notes that low bridge clearance of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge prevents larger vessels from using the Tampa Bay terminals and support infrastructure.

The air draft of most new cruise ships now exceeds the bridge's height limit at 180 feet.

Asked what impact the study might have on Port Manatee, Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said the state transportation agency is consistent in trying to identify opportunities for the region as ships get larger.

"This report is a pre-feasibility study and, should FDOT consider it important to move forward to conduct a full feasibility study, this would have the potential to identify additional funding and support for such a project," Buqueras said.

"Port Manatee is interested in exploring cruise opportunities consistent with its objective to diversify port revenues, and...is actively ex

ploring the cruise ferry business with an eye towards future Cuba opportunities," he said.

The port is also looking at opportunities to berth smaller ships and passenger ferries, Buqueras noted.

Three ports operate in Tampa Bay, including those in Manatee, St. Petersburg and Tampa, although Tampa's is the only one now hosting cruise ships.

"The study was commissioned to determine how the region can both maintain its current cruise business while at the same time allow for significant growth from the new 'mega' cruise ship market, and to identify potential courses of action," the Florida Department of Transportation stated Tuesday. "The resulting study provides a knowledge-based foundation in the determination of future direction of the cruise industry in the Tampa Bay region."

Options local officials might consider include, according to the study:

Do nothing and only receive vessels that fit under the bridge.

Build a new port seaward of the bridge.

Replace the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

"It is important to note that FDOT is not recommending one option over another," FDOT officials said.

The cruise industry is a significant contributor to the world's economies, with more than $100 billion in economic impact, the study said.

While the cruise ship business has grown worldwide, there is a cost in the development of infrastructure to accommodate it that must be addressed, the study said.

The immediate outlook for Tampa's cruise business is very positive, with passenger totals approaching 1 million in the next several years, according to Andy Fobes, public relations director for the Tampa Port Authority.

"Long-term, however," Fobes said in a statement, "the height of the bridge, coupled with the ever-increasing vessel size of the world's cruise fleet, will provide significant challenges for Port Tampa Bay's cruise business."

Last year, FDOT commissioned the Miami consulting firm of Bermello Ajamil & Partners to compile the $151,488 Tampa Bay Cruise Port Pre-Feasibility Study. In 2012, cruise line passengers and crews spent more than $7 billion in Florida, 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 study.

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