Updating Sunshine Skyway could cost billions

New study gives three options for Port of Tampa

A solution to allow today's enormous cruise ships to pass by Tampa Bay's Sunshine Skyway bridge could cost billions of dollars, a new study shows.

The report from the Florida Department of Transportation offered three solutions to the problem of mega-ships not fitting under the bridge, which has a clearance of 180 feet. Some of the industry's largest vessels are 225 feet, with more under construction.

The first solution is to demolish and rebuild the Skyway. That process could take up to three years and cost $1.5 billion or more to complete. The construction would also require the closing of I-275 from Pinellas to Manatee County, costing millions to the local economy.

Building a new skyway 240 feet above the water could create safety hazards for drivers during high winds. Engineers would have the challenging task of designing a structure that would remain stable in hurricane conditions.

The second option is to build a new port entirely. That proposal is significantly cheaper, around $632 to $647 million, according to the FDOT study. That would require finding a suitable location, getting the necessary environmental permits and working with neighboring Pinellas County.

The third option: Do nothing.

"'Do nothing' I don't think is an option," said Raul Alfonso, chief commercial officer for the Tampa Port Authority.  "It's like throwing our hands up."

Alfonso said the study is a good start into a process that will eventually bring many local governments and agencies together in finding a final plan, along with the money, to save the port's financial future.

"Our cruise industry is strong. We're in growth mode for the next five years," Alfonso said. "But what happens next? We don't want to be caught unprepared."

The study didn't recommend some ideas that had been proposed earlier, such as building a drawbridge on the existing Skyway, or digging a tunnel under the relatively shallow bay.

Finding funding could be a challenge. Alfonso said it was premature to worry about exactly what the project would ultimately cost and where the money would come from until a final plan is adopted.

"There is no dollar value that we can put on it now," Alfonso said. "Sometime we will, and at that time you can make a determination."

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