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Friday, Oct 24, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Don’t underestimate value of Tampa Bay in cruise port discussion

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As state and local officials review the possibility of dredging up a massive cruise ship port near the mouth of Tampa Bay, they should consider a study on the economic value of Tampa Bay recently conducted by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.

It found that a clean Tampa Bay figured in at least 13 percent — or $22 billion — of the total economic activity of the six-county Tampa Bay region.

Yet a healthy Tampa Bay has seemed a secondary concern as Port Tampa Bay and the Florida Department of Transportation look for ways to accommodate a cruise ship industry now building massive ships that won’t fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

A DOT pre-feasibility study estimated the cheapest way to serve the big ships would be to build a port west of the Skyway, which it estimated would cost about $650 million, compared with about $2 billion to replace the bridge.

Tampa’s cruise ship industry accounts for about 2,000 jobs, has an annual income of some $90 million and generates about $379 million in economic activity.

Officials plan to explore the options, which is appropriate. The decision on what course of action to take, if any, will be a long process. Still, that officials would seriously consider dredging up a port near the Skyway is alarming. We find the pre-feasibility findings on the option highly suspect.

The DOT study estimates on the cost of developing a 50-acre facility give scant attention to the costly environmental havoc such a project would surely cause — destroying seagrasses and marine life habitat, disrupting tidal flow and deteriorating water quality.

State officials breezily say any environmental harm would be “mitigated” by performing restoration projects elsewhere in the bay.

But we doubt it would be possible to undo the damage of developing on submerged land a facility that would contain, as the pre-feasibility study says, four berths, with each terminal needing at least 100,000 square feet for security, check-in, baggage, customs and border facilities and such. Parking for 9,000 spaces, with the potential for growth, also would be needed.

The massive development also would require the dredging of new channels.

To so savagely alter Tampa Bay would almost surely cause enduring harm, and not just to the estuary and possibly the nearby Pinellas beaches, but to the local business climate, as well.

The Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council report found the bay is a powerful economic driver.

To calculate the value of the bay, analysts reviewed real estate, restaurants, employment, lodging and food service statistics. They also surveyed professionals working with industries affiliated with the bay.

As the report points out, determining the economic impact of shipping, fishing or boating is fairly straightforward. It is more difficult to evaluate how the bay figures in business and residential decisions.

The study concluded the bay had an influence in 40 percent to 60 percent of business activities, and that a clean bay was an influence in 13 percent to 39 percent.

The study also found Tampa Bay played a role in about 600,000 jobs in the region — every other one. A clean bay figured in about 300,000 jobs — or about one in every five.

The study included jobs only in the 68 percent of the six-county region that actually are in the Tampa Bay watershed. It also addressed the bay’s impact on real estate values, hotel rates and such.

Analysts even estimated that the filtering qualities of seagrasses, shoreline marshes and mangroves spares the region about $24 million in wastewater treatment that would otherwise be needed to reduce nutrient pollution.

Of course, as the study concedes, placing a value on “ecosystem services” is not an exact science, and one can contest such calculations.

But anyone who doubts that Tampa Bay is a major economic engine should consider what life would be like were we to the undo the progress that has been made in cleaning the once-polluted bay, which had lost nearly 80 percent of its seagrasses and nearly half of its mangrove forests. Now the bay is cleaner than it has been in decades. Seagrasses are returning to the once-barren bottom, and marine life has rebounded.

Without a healthy Tampa Bay, the region’s economic prospects and quality of life would profoundly diminish. The bay’s welfare must be a priority in the cruise ship discussion.

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