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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Protect Tampa Bay and cruise ship industry

With the cruise ship industry now building massive megaships that won’t fit under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Port Tampa Bay officials rightly want to explore ways to keep from being squeezed out of the market.

But it’s essential they don’t allow that effort to justify ventures that would wreck Tampa Bay, which after decades of pollution and abuse has made a remarkable comeback.

At least one of the proposals that may be considered — the construction of a new cruise ship terminal on submerged land near the mouth of the bay — we fear would be hugely destructive.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a member of the Tampa Port Authority, is justifiably worried.

“You’re talking about a dredge and fill project in relatively shallow water that’s prime fish habitat. I don’t see how you can do that without tremendous impact,” Buckhorn says. Alas, sometimes in the quest for business, such ecological consequences — which could forever damage the region’s appeal and quality of life — are minimized.

The Florida Department of Transportation, in preparing a report for the port on how to deal with the Skyway issue, lists four options: constructing the new terminal in the bay near the Hillsborough-Pinellas line; replacing the Skyway; building a drawbridge at one end of the Skyway with a new channel for the large ships; or doing nothing.

Other than doing nothing, all the options likely would have some adverse impact, which is to be expected when maintaining the infrastructure — including channel dredging — necessary for commerce.

But when environmental damage is necessary, it’s vital that it be minimized and every precaution be taken against enduring harm.

It is not reassuring that DOT officials, in what they call a “pre-feasibility study,” do not address the possibility that the terminal could cause overwhelming damage to Florida’s largest estuary.

It seems to us this critical resource should have been accorded more concern before proposing projects that might be pursued.

Thanks to a coordinated state, local and federal effort over the past 30 years, the bay is in better shape than it has been in generations. Water quality is vastly improved, seagrasses are returning to the once-barren bottom, and fish numbers have rebounded.

It would be disgraceful if leaders, in the quest to appease one industry, turned the clock back to the days when Tampa Bay was treated as a worthless dump and it lost more than 80 percent of its seagrass beds and nearly half of its mangrove forests.

Without question, the community should strive to sustain and grow its cruise ship industry. As The Tampa Tribune’s Yvette Hammett reports, Tampa’s port served 854,000 passengers in fiscal year 2013, and a report last year found the local cruise ship industry was providing 1,984 jobs and represented $379.7 million in economic activity.

Such numbers are the reason Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, a member of the Tampa Port Authority, is excited about the potential of a new terminal west of the Skyway. She sees the cruise ship industry as a “tremendous tourist driver” and believes a terminal that would accommodate the larger ships could put passengers’ numbers well over 1 million

Even so, she also acknowledges, “We have to be cautious. I am not going to do anything that will hurt the environment.”

Though we’re skeptical, perhaps there is a way to develop a new terminal on the bay’s bottom without causing an environmental disaster. Tampa Bay’s welfare needs to be a central concern as port officials determine their course of action.

Buckhorn is dubious that a new terminal would attract much more business. The smaller — the term is relative — cruise ships are not going to suddenly disappear. And Buckhorn wonders if over time the port’s cruise ship facilities might more profitably be transitioned into waterfront residential complexes.

There is a lot to study and debate. The port is an economic engine — $15 billion in annual economic impact — and its continued success should be a regional priority. But so should the health of Tampa Bay.

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