Tampa's cruise industry has a problem. The 4.1-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge is too low to accommodate the so-called mega cruise ships of tomorrow. To assess the problem, the Florida Dept. of Transportation commissioned a pre-feasibility study that looks at replacing the 27-year-old structure, as well as other options, such as building a new port seaward of the bridge.

First, the problem: The Sunshine Skyway, with a vertical clearance of roughly 190 ft, is too low for tomorrow's cruise ships. In fact, it's barely tall enough for today's. Check out the quick video below of the Jewel of the Seas passing under the Sunshine Skyway. (Important note: The 10-year-old Jewel of the Seas is not ranked among the 25 largest cruise ships in the world.)

FDOT's study estimated it could cost up to $647 million to build a new port. The agency based that estimate on a four-berth facility with terminals measuring 100,000 sq ft, minimum; a six-level parking garage accommodating 9,000 spaces; and other ground transportation areas.

According to this study, there are problems with this option. For starters, the channels in the area "are too narrow for safe two-way cruise traffic." Additionally, the report says there is a "965-ft limitation on cruise vessel length due to the Sparkman channel and turning basin." The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the issue.

This Florida DOT video provides stats on the state cruise industry's size and economic impact. Starting at about 1:40, the video lists current and future infrastructure upgrades at major ports. 

The options related to replacing the existing toll bridge are more expensive, with estimates ranging from $1.5 billion to $2 billion. FDOT looked at three alternatives:
  • Build a new bridge and demolish the existing structure. For this option, FDOT estimated it would take four years to build a new bridge, and two years to demolish the existing structure. A positive about this approach is that the existing bridge would remain open, thus not disrupting toll revenues. Cost estimate: $2 billion.
  • Raising the deck's vertical profile by lifting the impacted bridge section to 240 ft. Construction would take three years—one fewer than the new-bridge option—but would require closing the existing bridge for approximately 18 to 24 months. Cost estimate: $1.5 billion.
  • Raising the deck's vertical profile to 240 ft by demolishing and replacing the impacted bridge section. This option has "lesser risk," the study says, but "may cause problems for maintenance and future bridge replacement due to the combination of new structure and existing structure." Cost estimate: $1.5 billion.

blog post photo
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, as photographed at dawn. Photo by Matthew Paulson.

Actually, FDOT also assessed a third option: Do nothing. But, there are negative consequences to that, the study says, such as "a significant loss of cruise traffic in the long-term with some 33- to 35-million passengers lost," which would cause "negative economic and job impacts" on the Tampa Bay area.

So - what do you think? Is a new port the way to go? Or is it time for a new bridge?