The Sunshine Skyway links the Tampa area with South Florida, provides the region a spectacular landmark and obstructs the growth of Tampa's cruise industry because the newest ships are too tall to sail beneath it.
The problem is not lost on Port of Tampa officials. For the past two years, port director Richard Wainio has quietly discussed with major cruise lines the prospect of building a multidock pier beyond the Sunshine Skyway that could accommodate the newest generation of megaships.
Changes in the cruise ship industry are driving the conversation about building new facilities in Pinellas County. Wainio said the industry appears headed toward building two types of ships in the foreseeable future.
One is small boutique ships that serve affluent clientele. The other is "mega cruise ships" handling more than 5,000 passengers, compared with 2,000 to 2,500 in the midsized ships currently serving the Port of Tampa.
When the Sunshine Skyway opened in 1987, no one foresaw the 182.5 feet between the water and the bottom of the bridge would be insufficient to permit passage of a new generation of megaships. However, the latest ships not only cannot fit beneath the Skyway, they can't navigate the narrow Sparkman Channel and the turning basin. Tampa's cruise terminals also are designed for the smaller, midsized ships.
To ensure growth is not capped by the size of ships the port can accommodate, Wainio says the port should examine the possibility of relocating at least some of the port's cruise line facilities.
"I've talked concept and location, but this is purely conceptual at this point," Wainio said.
An exact location has not yet been determined beyond west of the Skyway bridge, within the offshore Hillsborough County line, which encompasses Egmont Key. Although the docks might be built within Hillsborough, the supporting infrastructure, plus new development for shops, restaurants and hotels, would fall in Pinellas.
There is no timeline for fully exploring the idea, Wainio said, stressing that only preliminary discussions have been held and not with all stakeholders. Such a move would take at least five years, he said, and might never happen.
Still, Wainio said, if Tampa doesn't do something, changes in the cruise industry could make the port less and less attractive to the cruise industry. In other words, the cruise ship industry could begin to bypass Tampa's port, which already is considered a secondary market.
"If we are not satisfied with our limited market growth potential, we must be thinking ahead," Wainio said.
The Port of Tampa handles nearly 1 million cruise passengers annually. That number could grow to 1.5 million if more year-around ships are recruited, but that may be the limit with midsized ships. For example, half of Carnival Cruise Lines' 24 ships are too large to operate from the Port of Tampa.
Carnival would be interested in a port facility in an area that would not require its ships to pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, spokesman Vance Gulliksen said.
"This would enable us to bring newer and larger ships to Tampa as currently only our Fantasy and Spirit class ships can operate from the current facility," he said. "It is very unlikely that Carnival will build any new ships that can operate from the current facility."
Many issues would have to be addressed before new facilities would be built, including environmental concerns, financing and contractual arrangements with the cruise lines.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is willing to take the idea a step further: Build new cruise ship docks in south Pinellas, and plan for boutique cruise docks at St. Petersburg's new downtown Pier attraction, in exchange for the city not fighting attempts to look for a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays in Hillsborough County.
Crist calls the idea a "fair trade'' that would be a concrete example of regional cooperation.
"Pinellas and Hillsborough could work together to grow two industries, baseball and cruise ships, that appear to be stymied today," Crist said. "But it is so politically controversial, no one has been willing to talk about it."
Tampa's port could continue to serve midsized cruise ships as long as cruise lines operate them. It could also serve boutique ships, which Crist characterizes as high-end yachts.
Boutique cruises could find a natural port at the new Pier attraction, creating a new draw that never materialized when the current Pier was built, Crist said.
Pinellas hoteliers, restaurants and shops are more likely to benefit from a megaship terminal at its southern tip than current businesses in Tampa from the budget cruises on midsize ships.
"Tampa gets very little of the tourism dollar," Crist said. "When you study the data, it's clear travelers who book on the megaships tend to come in a day early and stay a day after, enjoying the port of call, something we don't get now serving midsized ships."