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FDOT lays out options for growth of Tampa cruise industry

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Published:   |   Updated: July 8, 2014 at 07:06 PM

Pitching a plan to the federal government to replace the Sunshine Skyway with a new, taller $2 billion version to accommodate larger cruise ships might be a tough sell.

Even modifying the bridge to accommodate the newer, larger ships could cost $1.5 billion.

And doing nothing to address the cruise ship issue would have a considerable economic impact in terms of lost jobs and wages, said Richard Biter, assistant secretary of intermodal systems development for the Florida Department of Transportation.

Biter was citing a long-awaited report his agency released Tuesday studying several options for how to work around the limitations of the Skyway and keep the cruise industry robust in Tampa Bay.

That leaves one more option for keeping the cruise industry afloat here, according to the $150,000 study — build a new cruise ship terminal seaward of the massive suspension bridge at a possible cost of $632 million to $647 million.

The larger Tampa Bay community will need to come together to decide what next steps to take, Biter said.

Raul Alfonso, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Port Tampa Bay, said he looks forward to the next steps. “This is going to be a collaborative effort with all partners, including the counties, the cruise industry and the environmental agencies.”

The do-nothing option would mean that eventually, as cruise lines replace their ships with larger ones, the local cruise business would fall off significantly.

Building a new cruise ship port seaward of the Skyway bridge would likely include construction of a 50-acre, four-berth facility with a 100,000 square-foot port terminal facility, the report states. It would need to include a lobby, security, check-in areas, baggage areas and customs office. This facility could also include a marina for mega-yacht docking, a boutique hotel, restaurants and shops. It would require some 9,000 parking spaces.

Addressing the bridge itself is even more expensive. The options include building a new bridge (around $2 billion), altering the existing bridge by lifting the impacted section, or demolishing the impacted section and building a new, higher segment (either of which would cost around $1.5 billion).

Biter said it is not up to the state Department of Transportation to decide which option to choose. It is FDOT’s responsibility to lay out the facts and let the community decide, then come to FDOT and ask for a full-blown feasibility study on the option it chooses.

A consultant had initially suggested a fourth alternative — to build a drawbridge at one end of the Skyway with a deep channel for the large ships, but Biter said FDOT determined that was not a viable option.

Once a feasibility study is complete, a finance plan could be hammered out, Biter said, and that would likely involve both public and private funding.

Alfonso said he is hoping the feasibility study will take months, rather than years.

Port Tampa Bay is already the eighth largest cruise port in the nation. Just last year, the port hosted 854,000 cruise passengers and will likely top the 1 million-passenger mark this year.

Currently, the cruise industry’s economic impact on the Tampa Bay area includes nearly 2,000 jobs and an annual income of some $90 million.

The FDOT study concludes that in the long-term, Port Tampa Bay could be hosting more than 2.5 million cruise passengers a year with an annual economic impact of close to $1 billion.

Alfonso said the port authority will take in “tons of input” before making a decision on how to proceed.

If it concludes that a new cruise port is in order, a location would have to be determined. Right now, he said, it is much too early in the process to throw out any specifics.

“We do own submerged lands” in Tampa Bay that could be filled to create the appropriate space, he said. “We will study all aspects” of every alternative. “Could we do it? Yes, but it has to be within the context of overall cost” and considering any environmental factors.

“We believe we have five solid years of growth, then what happens is unknown,” Alfonso said, in discussing the future of the cruise industry here. “Indications are that in 10-12 years, over 90 percent of the cruise fleet would not (fit) under the bridge. We cannot afford to wait... but, we do have time for this process to take effect.

“I think it’s going to be very interesting,” he said.

Whatever the future holds, Alfonso said, “it will be a long-term partnership between the private and public sectors.”

One thing that hasn’t yet been studied, Alfonso said, is the effects cruises to Cuba could have on the growth of the industry here. Alfonso, who was born in Cuba, said he believes Cuba cruises could be a game-changer for Port Tampa Bay.

“We have to take this project and process it like any other business proposition,” he said. “We don’t have all the intangibles in our hands, but in the end, we hope the cruise study will tell us what we need and what we will require from the private sector, including the cruise lines.”

Biter said the pre-feasibility study moved the issue “from anecdotal to one of knowledge. Whatever decision is made, it will be based on one set of facts.”

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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