With cruise ships increasing in size, the Tampa Bay region faces some hard, costly choices. Should it raise or rebuild the Sunshine Skyway Bridge so new megaships can enter Tampa, which sounds ridiculous and too expensive? Should it build a terminal on the seaward side near Pinellas County so the biggest ships can avoid the Skyway, which sounds like fantasy? Or should it do nothing and build a niche market with the midsized ships already entering the bay, which at this point sounds prudent? The region needs a fuller sense of its options and a clear idea of how the bay area can compete with busier cruise ports on Florida's Atlantic Coast.
The barriers the Skyway poses to the ever-larger ships entering the fleet were underscored last week in a report by the state Department of Transportation. The Skyway can handle ships that measure 180 feet from the top of the waterline. The report estimates that just under half the cruise ship fleet in the United States today can fit beneath the Skyway. But that number will drop quickly in the coming decades, and by 2045, 90 percent of the fleet will be too large to fit under the bridge.
The state offered three options. Raise the bridge, or build a new one for up to $2 billion. Build a new terminal west of the Skyway, at the mouth of the bay, for about $647 million. Or do nothing, and work to recruit the remaining ships that can access Tampa Bay.
Replacing the Skyway, or even raising the center span, is not practical for a bridge with a lifespan of 48 more years. And if taller ships could fit beneath it, they still would be too large to reach the cruise ship terminals in downtown Tampa. The region would need to spend millions of dollars more on wider channels, new docking facilities and other costly infrastructure to receive the larger ships. And building a new terminal off Pinellas raises economic and environmental costs. Even assuming the project should and would be permitted, is shuttling cruise ship passengers between remote terminals the experience these customers want?
The do-nothing option deserves a serious look. Port Tampa Bay could build a niche market with smaller ships to serve Mexico, the Caribbean and eventually, Cuba. The DOT study recognizes Tampa's strength as a regional, secondary market; the biggest ships may opt to go elsewhere, anyway — to Port Canaveral, Port Everglades or PortMiami, which each handle about four times the 1 million cruise passengers that come through Tampa. The tens of millions of dollars in ship and rail improvements in Central and South Florida will continue to make those mega-cruise ship markets ultracompetitive.
Still, this region should examine whether an industry that already generates one-fourth of the port's revenue base has an important role for the future. The industry supports thousands of jobs, the near-term outlook is strong, the Cuba cruise market has potential and Tampa Bay is a convenient gateway for millions of travelers throughout the Southeast.
The state should work with the port on a followup study that examines in greater detail the future of the cruise ship industry in Florida, the prospects for the bay area and the financial and environmental costs for these three options. This also needs to be a regional discussion, given the potential impacts to Pinellas and Manatee counties. The region has some important choices to make about this fast-changing industry, and raising or replacing the Skyway do not sound like plausible alternatives.