To save the local cruise ship industry, Tampa Bay has to choose between two of the biggest and most expensive public infrastructure projects in its history.
One proposal is to spend $2 billion to replace or raise the Sunshine Skyway bridge so that it would be tall enough to allow new mega-sized cruise ships to pass underneath it. Those ships are the future of the cruise industry, but they cannot sail under the current bridge.
The other option is to build a $700 million cruise ship port on the Pinellas County side of the Skyway so that the ships would not have to go under the bridge at all.
When the Tampa Bay Times asked local officials about the two options, one immediately came off the table:
"Obviously, I don't think replacing the bridge is a wise decision," said Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel.
Neither does St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
"Mayor Kriseman thinks the only viable option would be a terminal on the west side of the Skyway," communications director Benjamin Kirby wrote in an email.
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The state study released Tuesday revealed scant details about either option, especially about the Pinellas cruise port. Where would it be built and how? What about the environmental impact on Pinellas' world-famous beaches?
The public and the politicians will need to know all that before deciding what to do next. But those answers will have to wait for the next study.
"Of course I'm concerned about our beaches and I'm concerned about our environment," Seel said. "But it's too preliminary to make a decision about what's feasible and what's not."
But Richard Wainio, former executive director of the Tampa Port Authority, has some insight into those issues. He took over the Port Authority in 2005 and spent his seven years there wrestling with the cruise ship issue.
"I knew it was going to be a problem even before I got here," said Wainio, who left the Port Authority in 2012.
A few years ago, Wainio said he asked engineers to assess if, and where, a Pinellas cruise terminal could be built west of the Skyway bridge.
The answer: It can, and the best site would be in the waters off the southwest corner of St. Petersburg, around the approach to the Skyway.
The Tampa Port Authority controls all the submerged lands in Tampa Bay and around the shipping channel, so a Hillsborough County agency would take the lead in building such a facility and running it off the Pinellas coast. The port, which already generates revenue from cruise ship passengers, would also profit from a new cruise port.
The Port Authority would build the terminal on an artificial island created by the dredging that would be needed to create a channel for the ships, Wainio said.
The new channel would be like a left-hand turn lane flowing from the main Tampa Bay shipping channel that runs under the center of the Skyway.
That artificial island would be connected to the mainland by a causeway bridge, an idea that Wainio said the Florida Department of Transportation studied and deemed plausible.
But Wainio cautioned that the engineering work determined only that such a cruise port could be built on the Pinellas side of the bay — not that it's a good idea to build one.
"For anybody to say this is a good idea at this point is jumping way ahead," he said. "But if you're going to do something, I think that appears to be the best option."
Kriseman's spokesman said the mayor supports the concept but wants to see a "more innovative, less environmentally impactful" option, such as the offshore cruise port site Wainio studied years ago.
Other environmental concerns include the spoil islands, bird sanctuaries and sea grass beds located near the proposed site, as well as the effects passing cruise ships could have on beach erosion. The site is also in lower Tampa Bay, known for having the best water quality in the bay.
"It's all very hard to evaluate at this point," said Maya Burke, senior environmental planner for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
Wainio said many studies will need to be done before local leaders can decide whether building a new cruise port is a good idea. And, he added, such a project would have to be a regional undertaking. It would take extraordinary cooperation between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The facility might be owned and run by a Tampa agency, but it would need the support of St. Petersburg and Pinellas.
"You need to create a vision," Wainio said, "and not just for Tampa. It's got to be for Tampa Bay, for Pinellas and Hillsborough."
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Another reason Wainio favors the proposed Pinellas cruise port is that the $2 billion estimate to build a new Skyway wouldn't actually solve the "mega ship" problem on its own.
Even with a new bridge, Wainio said the existing cruise ship infrastructure and channels in Tampa Bay could not accommodate the mega vessels.
The shipping channels might be deep enough for such ships, but Wainio fears they might not be wide enough. However, the Sparkman Channel turning basin near downtown Tampa's existing cruise ship terminals is definitely too small for tugboats to swing the mega ships around.
"The bridge is only a piece of the issue," Wainio said. "We don't have cruise terminals, we don't have channels that can accommodate them."
The Port Authority's cruise terminals are also too small for mega vessels. They can handle only half of the more than 5,000 passengers that the bigger ships can hold.
"Most of your port infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in vessel size and dimensions," said Allen Thompson, executive director of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association.
In fact, the state study said the 180-foot limit of the Skyway down to the waterline has already had a detrimental effect on the Tampa Bay cruise market: "The air draft impediment has already cost the region cruise vessel deployments," the report said.
Wainio thinks a business case could be made for building a Pinellas cruise port. The Tampa cruise market is a "drive-in" market. According to the port, about 60 percent of its passengers are within driving distance. That means those tourists are not spending a lot of time or money in Tampa.
But in Pinellas, with the beaches nearby, those tourists might stay an extra day or two. Tourists who take cruises out of the state's biggest cruise markets in Miami and Fort Lauderdale spend extra time on land.
"If you build a terminal like that and you start to serve those mega ships," Wainio said, "the nature of the business changes dramatically."
But he cautioned that such a facility should not be built unless cruise lines sign contracts committing mega cruise ships to an offshore Pinellas terminal.
"Whether it's a container terminal or a passenger terminal, I don't believe you build it and they will come," he said. "It's too expensive, too risky, too much competition. I think you absolutely have to have some kind of buy-in or commitment."
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The state study included a third option: do nothing.
Instead of spending up to $1 billion (maybe $2 billion), the bay area could spend nothing and hope for the best.
The Tampa Bay cruise market could survive as a niche market served by smaller, older ships. But that's assuming enough of those ships avoid the scrap heap in the coming decades and mega ships don't completely take over the market.
But the older ships "most likely, they will disappear," said Raul Alfonso, chief commercial officer of the Port Authority.
That would certainly hurt the port. In the past fiscal year, 22 percent of its revenue came from cruise passengers. That was $9.5 million out of $44.1 million in revenue. And the port expects to handle 1.1 million passengers this year, which would be a new record.
The state report said the local economy would also take a hit. The local cruise business generated about $380 million in annual economic activity for the bay area in 2012 and supports about 2,000 jobs.
The state study projects that, if the cruise business continued to grow, Tampa Bay could handle 3 million passengers by 2043. The industry could support more than 5,000 jobs by then.
But that's why leaders need to see more studies, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, to see whether the massive investment is worth that return.
"Then it becomes a fairly pragmatic decision," he said. "How much are you going to invest versus how much would the return be?
"We'll make those decisions, but it's important that we have the data and numbers in front of us."
Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.