Saturday, February 24, 2018
Business

Cruising for ideas on Tampa Bay's costly mega ship problem

Tampa Bay residents have long been generous in offering helpful advice, be it to football coaches, fellow motorists or visiting tourists.

So it's no surprise that after a state study revealed that the local cruise ship industry is endangered because mega ships will not fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, suggestions from local residents poured in.

Tampa Bay Times readers offered solutions they believe might be more feasible (cheaper) than the two expensive solutions offered in the state study. The Times did not vet these ideas but is simply passing them along to keep the dialogue going.

The report said raising or replacing the Skyway could cost up to $2 billion and building a new cruise ship port on an artificial island on the Pinellas side of the bay could cost about $700 million. Then the mega ships would not have to go under the bridge at all.

In their responses, bay area residents showed they're not just budding offensive coordinators and traffic law experts. They're also amateur engineers:

Ferries and islands: A few readers suggested that high-speed ferries could shuttle passengers back and forth from the cruise terminals in downtown Tampa to mega ships moored on the seaward side of the Skyway.

"I will miss not sailing under the Skyway while having our dinner," a reader wrote via email. "But such is life."

But how would the cruise ships be refueled and resupplied? Perhaps by creating a place for those ships to dock, so they can take on supplies and passengers.

One reader suggested building a "small concrete island" for ships.

Another said a "floating" island could accommodate the ships as well as a hotel, restaurants and smaller vessels. But it wouldn't have to be big enough to handle parking.

Those ideas are similar to the Pinellas cruise port suggested in the state study. It would be built on an artificial island created from dredging a channel toward the Pinellas coast from the main shipping channel that passes under the Skyway.

Dry dock: One reader suggested using a floating dry dock to help lower mega cruise ships so they could sail below the existing Skyway. The mega ship would float inside the dock, which tugboats would push under the bridge into the bay.

But the bridge isn't the only infrastructure hampering the cruise ship industry.

Tampa Bay's shipping channels might have the depth to handle bigger ships, but they might not have the width. The turning basin doesn't have enough room for mega ships to be turned around. And downtown Tampa's cruise terminals can't handle mega ships, either.

Tunnel: The Baltimore Harbor Tunnel is a 1.45-mile, four-lane tunnel that allows traffic to pass beneath the entrance to Baltimore's harbor. The Baltimore tunnel allows traffic on Interstate 895 to flow under the water while ships pass above, just like the nearby Fort McHenry Tunnel, which serves Interstate 95.

Local activist Neil Cosentino pitched the idea to the Tampa Port Authority on Tuesday.

But he thinks the tunnel should be built on the Manatee side of the bay. He also said the port should combine with the Manatee County Port Authority to create a global port that can handle not just mega cruise ships, but the new generation of gigantic "new Panamax" ships that will pass through the expanded Panama Canal.

Those are very ambitious plans, however. Then there's the political element: Port Manatee has accused the Port of Tampa of trying to execute a hostile takeover. The two ports also compete against each other for certain cargos, and there was some recent jostling over pineapples.

Locks: The Panama Canal uses a series of locks to raise and lower ships as they travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So one reader suggested: Why not build locks to help mega ships pass below the bridge and enter Tampa Bay?

The reader admitted that might be more expensive than replacing the Skyway. He wanted to run it by experts.

"Just an idea from an armchair dreamer," the reader wrote.

Do nothing: One reader, an oceanographer, wrote that trying to build a cruise port off the southwest corner of St. Petersburg would be an expensive and inadvisable folly.

Not only would it be a permitting nightmare — involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — but the reader said such a project would also endanger Pinellas' world-class beaches and some of the most environmentally sensitive and pristine undersea areas in the bay.

"I thought I had heard all the harebrained ideas that (they) could possibly come up (with)," the reader wrote. "I was wrong."

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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