TIERRA VERDE — Aside from spending $1.5 billion to $2 billion to replace or drastically alter the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the only viable option for bringing bigger cruise ships to the Tampa Bay area in the coming years would be a new cruise terminal just beyond the bridge.
Such a port, located in pristine waters near the deep-water channel that runs between Fort De Soto Park and Egmont Key, could accommodate the ships planned for the future, luxury liners with up to 5,000 passengers, ships too large for the Skyway’s 182-foot clearance.
Just the concept of a dredged, 50-acre seaport in coastal waters prized for unspoiled natural beauty and sensitive aquatic ecosystems raises serious doubts for those concerned about protecting the health of the bay.
St. Petersburg College oceanographer Heyward Mathews says a proposed full-blown feasibility study would just be a waste of money. “The idea that they could ever, ever get a permit — maybe they might could have 75 years ago, 50 years ago; probably not — but nowadays, it’s never going to happen,” Mathews said.
Dredging a deep-water port in the shallow estuaries along Egmont Channel for these colossal cruise ships would stir up so much silt that the water quality along miles of beaches would be spoiled for decades, he said.
“The beaches as far as Johns Pass, the water would look like dirty brown coffee for many years to come,” he said.
The terminal, though, could secure the future of the local cruise industry based in Tampa, which provides 2,000 jobs and likely will serve 1 million passengers this year.
Elected officials and tourism leaders have called for more study on how it could be built and whether a cost estimate of $647 million in a preliminary Florida Department of Transportation study is realistic.
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For Port Tampa Bay, which is struggling to find a way to sustain its second-tier cruise market operating out of Tampa’s Channel District, the concerns may be premature.
The $150,000 early feasibility study released this month merely mentions building a cruise port on the seaward side of the Skyway. It offers few details on how it would be built.
Such a facility would include four massive berths and a 100,000-square-foot terminal with a lobby, security check-in, baggage areas and customs office.
A boutique hotel, restaurants, shops, a marina for megayachts and 9,000 parking spaces also would factor into the design.
The Hillsborough County boundary line cuts through a swath of offshore land west of the bridge, but the new port facilities likely would end up in Pinellas.
Port officials have been investigating the idea for at least two years but have said little about specific sites, how it would be connected to the bridge or nearby barrier islands or the possible environmental fallout.
“It’s a very long process. We’re at the infancy stage of that long and drawn out process,” port spokesman Andy Fobes said.
An in-depth feasibility study requested by the Tampa Port Authority board would address these kinds of specifics.
Some elected officials appear open at to least investigating the options in the preliminary study.
“It’s important we begin this dialogue now and explore all options to ensure the Port of Tampa is positioned to maximize future cruise business opportunities,” U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, said in a statement after the study was released.
A serious investigation of environmental impacts would be needed before even considering the idea, said Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who represents barrier island communities close to the Skyway.
“The last thing we want to do is put our waters in any kind of jeopardy from the cruise ships,” said Morroni, a former chairman of the county’s Tourist Development Council.
Though the majority of cruisers who disembark in the Channel District don’t spend much time or money in Tampa, a port closer to the beach could entice tourists to spend a few extra nights in the area, said Tim Bogott, CEO of TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach.
Many in the local tourism business will be following future studies carefully and scrutinizing them to ensure that any proposed port wouldn’t burden taxpayers or damage the industry’s most precious economic resource.
“We have beautiful natural resources, beautiful beaches here. Fort De Soto has been rated among the best in the world,” said Robin Sollie, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
That natural resource has begun to fully recover from years of dredging activity across Tampa Bay for the sake of residential and commercial development.
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Southwest Pinellas is home to the bay’s cleanest water, nourishing thousands of acres of seagrass beds that have returned slowly in the past decade as more sunlight reaches the seafloor.
Much of the area around the southern barrier islands is an aquatic preserve, and there’s a national wildlife refuge in the area that supports growing populations of fish and birds, said Peter Clark, president of the Tampa Bay Watch environmental group, which is headquartered just outside Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde.
“The area they’re talking about is one of our most critical productive areas in all of Tampa Bay,” said Clark, who was surveyed as part of the recent FDOT study.
Any prospective project would have to prove to state and federal agencies that environmental damage would be offset by greater improvements to water quality elsewhere in the bay.
That would be a tough sell for such a large-scale development, which would almost certainly involve dredging up major sections of this fragile environment to expand or create an artificial island for a deep-water port.
In recent decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hasn’t been inclined to approve many of these dredging projects, Mathews said.
Smaller proposals in Clearwater Harbor, at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg and a big residential development on the back side of Honeymoon Island in Dunedin all ended up being scrapped after strong community opposition, Mathews said.
Past efforts to create man-made channels continue to cause serious beach erosion up and down the coast.
Fort De Soto’s famed North Beach — called the best in America by the coastal expert “Dr. Beach” — is eroding quickly from natural causes, but dredging activity, even several miles away, could speed up that process as tidal flows between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico are altered.
“The environmental impact of something like that is so enormous it’s not going to take a marine scientist to realize right off the bat this is not compatible with lower Pinellas County’s waters,” Mathews said.
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Bay area political and business leaders aren’t likely to dismiss the idea that quickly, though, with the very real prospect of losing an industry that one day could generate nearly $1 billion in economic activity, according to the FDOT report.
Based on the size of ships being built by major cruise companies, 90 percent of them won’t be able pass beneath the Skyway a decade from now, port officials have said.
But the benefits of sustaining the area’s modest cruise business, which would be a fraction of the activity at Florida’s bigger ports on the Atlantic Coast, may not outweigh the costs of keeping it here.
In light of all the environmental pitfalls, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn’t sure the forthcoming feasibility study will show that big cruise ships have a strong future here.
“What I hope out of this study is we’ll determine, even if we made all these improvements, even if we built a new terminal, whether or not Tampa Bay would be a destination for the mega cruise lines anyway,” he said.
“I don’t know what will change for that to be the case if we had a new terminal.”