TAMPA — The cruise ships that sail up and down Tampa Bay generate more than $380 million in annual economic activity for the area and help support up to 2,000 jobs.
But saving that industry from extinction could cost hundreds of millions — and maybe even a billion or two — in local, state and federal tax dollars, a state study estimates.
The question Tampa Bay leaders must ask themselves in the coming years: Are cruise ships worth it?
That's the difficult choice facing the bay area after the Florida Department of Transportation released its long anticipated and oft-delayed study of the local cruise ship market on Tuesday.
"I think it reaffirms what we've always known," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "There are no inexpensive solutions."
The problem facing Tampa Bay, and other communities across the country, is that the new breed of megasized cruise and cargo ships are too big for existing port entryways.
Here, mega cruise ships cannot fit beneath the Sunshine Skyway bridge. The Skyway can handle cruise ships that measure 180 feet from the top of the waterline. But the mega ships can sit as high as 225 feet above the waterline.
Those ships would never be able to sail unimpeded to the cruise ship terminals in downtown Tampa's Channel District. But those are the ships that the industry is rapidly adopting. There may not be enough of the smaller, older ships in the future to dock in Tampa.
The $150,000 report listed options for dealing, or not dealing, with the coming problem:
• Officials could choose to build a new Skyway bridge, or raise part of it, so that mega cruise ships could pass beneath it.
Building a new Skyway (which was finished in 1987) would cost $2 billion. It also would take two years to tear down the current bridge and four years to build a new one.
The span could be raised, but at a cost of up to $1.5 billion that would leave it closed for years. That option creates a "high risk of instability," the report said.
Both options could block motor vehicle traffic between Pinellas and Manatee counties for an extended period and interfere with shipping routes to Port Tampa Bay.
The Skyway is an interstate highway. That means federal money and approval would be required.
Richard Biter, FDOT's assistant secretary for intermodal systems development, said he could imagine how federal officials would react: "They would say you have a perfectly good bridge with a 30-year lifespan left and you just want to tear it down?"
The Skyway option was included because "we just wanted to lay that out there," he said.
The study also identifies another expensive and problematic issue: Tampa Bay's shipping channels. Even if mega ships could fit beneath the Skyway, the channels are two narrow for them to pass by each other side-by-side. The bottom of the bay would have to be dredged, which is expensive, difficult and highly regulated.
Mega cruise ships further are too big to swing around in the turning basin in Sparkman Channel leading up to the cruise terminal. Tugboats typically swing ships around so they can back into the terminal. Ships longer than 965-feet can't be rotated there. Mega ships are longer than 1,000 feet.
• There's another option that would cost only about $700 million: Build a new cruise ship port west of the Skyway so that the larger vessels won't have to travel under it.
That facility would be built at the mouth of Tampa Bay, on Hillsborough County land owned by the Tampa Port Authority, which runs the cruise ship terminals. But that would require cooperation from Pinellas and would have to overcome environmental challenges.
The report projected that a new cruise terminal would include a 100,000-square-foot building on up to 58 acres with a six-level parking structure that has up to 9,000 spaces. Construction would take place near Pinellas' lucrative and world-famous beaches.
"You cannot destroy that," Buckhorn said, calling the beaches the area's "bread and butter."
• The cheapest option laid out in the report: Do nothing. Port Tampa Bay could settle for becoming a port of call for older, smaller ships. But Raul Alfonso, chief commercial officer of the Tampa Port Authority, said that would spell the end of Tampa Bay's cruise ship industry.
"Over 90 percent of the future cruise ship fleet will not be able to come under the Skyway bridge," he said.
The FDOT report laid out some tough choices just as the local cruise industry is poised to enjoy a record year: 1.1 million passengers are expected to pass through Tampa on 239 cruises in 2014. The Tampa Port Authority got 22 percent of its revenue from cruise ships in the last fiscal year: $9.5 million out of total revenue of $44.1 million.
The state does not endorse any option. The next step would be for bay area leaders to ask FDOT to conduct another study to evaluate which of the above options is best.
"It's going to be up to the region to decide where they want to go from here," Biter said.
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.