Sunshine Skyway could be holding back Tampa cruise ship industry

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Tampa Bay’s cruise ship business could be underwater soon if it does not address the Sunshine Skyway limitations with the newest generation of mega-sized floating hotels.

This week, the Florida Department of Transportation releases the results of a study weighing several options: put a drawbridge at one end of the Skyway, with a new channel for ships to avoid the bridge issue; move the cruise ship terminal to a location nearer the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line, or build a new Skyway bridge.

On the other hand, they can do nothing.

One factor in the decision is a return on investment, according to FDOT officials. That has yet to be considered.

“The Tampa Bay region has enjoyed a significant amount of cruise ship traffic through mainly the facilities at Channelside in Port Tampa Bay,” FDOT spokesperson John O’Brien told the Tampa Tribune. “This business generates a significant economic impact for the region and the State of Florida. For many years, however, the cruise industry has been building ships which no longer can enter Tampa Bay …”

In April 2013, the department called for a study of the issue, reviewing options and obtaining input from a variety of stakeholders.

FDOT Seaport Manager Meredith Dahlrose will not release a draft of the report under a public records request, saying she will wait until stakeholder comments are collected.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who also serves on the Tampa Port Authority Board, is eager for the new study.

Murman hopes the best option will be building a new cruise ship terminal on submerged lands owned by Hillsborough County Tampa Bay, just west of the Skyway.

“We are getting close to a million passengers right now, and that is a very significant increase over recent years,” Murman said to Tribune reporter Yvette Hammett. “We’ve got a great relationship with the cruise companies. I know ships are getting bigger and I don’t want to lose that momentum, because it’s a huge economic driver for our area.”

Serving 854,000 cruise passengers during fiscal year 2013, Port Tampa Bay has become the eighth-largest cruise port in the nation, public affairs director Andrew Fobes wrote in an email.

Closeness to Caribbean cruise destinations, Tampa International Airport and attractions in the area make the Port appealing to cruise ship companies, Fobes added.

The 2013 Local and Regional Economic Impacts of the Port of Tampa found the cruise ship industry provides 1,984 jobs with $379.7 million in “total value of economic activity.”

Tampa-area businesses and other suppliers to the cargo and cruise industries based in the Port, according to the report, realized $933.1 million in local purchases, as well as generating wages and salaries of $90.9 million.

It is not the time to slow down, said Murman.

“We have the potential, if we do an off-site terminal, to increase our cruise passengers to up to 3 million,” she said. “I am hoping the study reveals that this would be a good move for us.”

Coincidentally, Port Tampa Bay is in the process of updating its master plan, Murman said, so the timing is perfect.

Cruise ship companies could also help pay for in any infrastructure where they benefit.

In 2012, the Port Authority began reviewing a Pinellas-area terminal. Then, a Carnival Cruise Line representative said the company would consider a port that avoids the Skyway, since it is unlikely any of the new generation of ships would be able to operate from the Channelside facility as it stands.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.