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Roundup 5-4-2012

May 4, 2012

The Bridge, the Port, and “Thinking Ahead”

There was a very interesting article in the Tribune on Thursday, followed up by one in the Times today.

The Sunshine Skyway links the Tampa area with South Florida, provides the region a spectacular landmark and obstructs the growth of Tampa’s cruise industry because the newest ships are too tall to sail beneath it.

The problem is not lost on Port of Tampa officials. For the past two years, port director Richard Wainio has quietly discussed with major cruise lines the prospect of building a multidock pier beyond the Sunshine Skyway that could accommodate the newest generation of megaships.

This is kind of odd.

            Of Mixed Messages and Inaction

How long has the Port known of this problem? In a 2011 report about the port, we learned this:

Cruise lines eight years ago raised issues that their newest generation of ships would not be able to serve Tampa because they would be too tall for the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The present Director took over in 2005.

In 2006, the Director said this:

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge has been replaced by a new structure, which towers much higher over the entrance of Tampa Bay allowing the largest passenger vessels to enter the harbor, resulting in Tampa Bay ports becoming the world’s premier cruise port.

We also did not find any mention of the bridge/cruise issue in this 2011 State of Port Presentation (check slide 11 on the “Thriving Cruise Business” in particular) or in this very sunny 2011 State of the Port discussion:

Notably during the year cruise passenger totals reached approximately 875 thousand, the 2nd highest year on record – 2nd only to the unusual year when we benefited from a cruise vessel shift to Tampa from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This year with the recent addition of Norwegian Cruise Line, joining Carnival, RCCI and Holland America in Tampa an all time record year is expected in fiscal year 2012. And, by next year, we should approach 1,000,000 passengers, ranking us number 6 in the nation among cruise homeports.

We also did not find anything about it in this Port “Workshop Presentation” from April 2012.

On the other hand, the 2008 Port Master Plan (by Norbridge, Inc) has a long discussion of the cruise industry and on page 257 says :

To capitalize on the growing trend toward larder cruise ships, the Port of Tampa needs to explore alternatives to alleviate the airdraft restriction caused by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. As part of its long-range master planning, the TPA should identify and evaluate practical alternatives to successfully address the airdraft restrictions posed by the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The TPA should also continuously monitor the design airdrafts of all cruise ship orders to determine what percentage of the world fleet will be restricted from calling the Port. If the airdraft limitation becomes a significant impediment to the sustainability of the Port’s cruise business, then the TPA will need to evaluate the financial, technical, operational and environmental feasibility of pursuing identified options.

Along with the 2003 warning, the 2008 report appears to have not been enough to spur action at the time, and, strangely, the 2010 Strategic Plan update does not appear to concern itself with cruise business.

Now, we are told the Director has been discussing moving the cruise business to near the Skyway for two years, so why nothing in the strategic plan update?  We have no idea to whom he has been talking.  We know it was not his true employers – the taxpayers of Hillsborough County.

             Where is the Plan?

Despite the inconsistencies in this story, we have been calling for a vision and a plan from the Port Director, so we will just go with it. What is the plan?

“I’ve talked concept and location, but this is purely conceptual at this point,” Wainio said.

An exact location has not yet been determined beyond west of the Skyway bridge, within the offshore Hillsborough County line, which encompasses Egmont Key. Although the docks might be built within Hillsborough, the supporting infrastructure, plus new development for shops, restaurants and hotels, would fall in Pinellas.

There is no timeline for fully exploring the idea, Wainio said, stressing that only preliminary discussions have been held and not with all stakeholders. Such a move would take at least five years, he said, and might never happen.

Still, Wainio said, if Tampa doesn’t do something, changes in the cruise industry could make the port less and less attractive to the cruise industry. In other words, the cruise ship industry could begin to bypass Tampa’s port, which already is considered a secondary market.

“If we are not satisfied with our limited market growth potential, we must be thinking ahead,” Wainio said.

The Times article elaborates:

One idea is to build a new multidock pier near the bridge, in an area that is still technically within Hillsborough County limits. (The county line between Pinellas and Hillsborough runs under the Skyway bridge.)

To build at that site, the Port Authority would have to dredge some of the area around the bridge and build a small island to support the cruise terminal. Dredging and creating man-made islands is not unusual, though it requires plenty of time to obtain permits and conduct environmental studies.

Obviously, Wainio said, this project would take priority because it would be preserving Tampa’s stake in the cruise business.

“We’re exploring how that can be accomplished, and then it’s up to others how it would be done once we present [the idea] to them,” Wainio said.

* * *

But Wainio is quick to point out that no decisions have been made as to exactly where or when a new terminal would be built.

“It’s all conceptual,” Wainio said. “We have a general location, and we have a conceptual engineering design.”

The Port Authority, however, will have to figure it out within the next five years, or risk losing its cruise business altogether, he said.

“If you wait much beyond that, you might find yourself without a market to pursue, or a limited market to pursue,” he said.

Well, if the Port is finally working on something, good.  But that begs the question why the Director was not “thinking ahead” when he became Director and why it was not a “priority” then.  Assuming the Tribune story is true, and if time is of such essence, why was the Director waiting 4+ years (2005-2010) before doing anything and 2+ years (2010-2012) coming up with “conceptual engineering drawings?”  Why hasn’t the Director talked to all the stakeholders if it is a priority?

It must be because regional issues are dealt with so smoothly in the Tampa Bay area, and building an island off the Skyway, redoing all the roads, creating a logistics hub, and expanding a channel shouldn’t take any time, right?

We are also unsure why “it’s up to others how it would be done.” Isn’t the cruise business part of the Port operations?  Isn’t the Port responsible?

Another thing: conceptual engineering drawings?  That’s a start. Let’s see them.  We are curious how they solve the problems of getting food and baggage on and off the ship, plus people, and traffic.  Not to mention how to deal with handling a 1200 foot ship.

Even if we suspend our disbelief regarding all this, the truth is that there is no plan, just an idea, a talking point.  This is a problem that has been known for almost a decade and basically nothing has been done.  Random thoughts are not enough.  There should have already been a full discussion of the issue, the options, and development of a full plan. There needs to be a plan and execution.  And while you are at, figure out how to get new-Panamax ships into the port.

Look, it is good if people are actually seriously discussing this issue.  However, this is one more instance where poor decisions have been made, time has been wasted, and Tampa Bay is playing from behind. And there is not much time.

We are need for a real plan – now.

           One last note.

There was this intriguing nugget in the Tribune article:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist is willing to take the idea a step further: Build new cruise ship docks in south Pinellas, and plan for boutique cruise docks at St. Petersburg’s new downtown Pier attraction, in exchange for the city not fighting attempts to look for a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays in Hillsborough County.

Crist calls the idea a “fair trade” that would be a concrete example of regional cooperation.

“Pinellas and Hillsborough could work together to grow two industries, baseball and cruise ships, that appear to be stymied today,” Crist said. “But it is so politically controversial, no one has been willing to talk about it.” /

Pinellas and Hillsborough working to solve multiple problems regionally.  That would be truly innovative. Too bad it was not discussed years ago.

             Another Last Note .

We also feel compelled to address something the Tribune article says this:

When the Sunshine Skyway opened in 1987, no one foresaw the 182.5 feet between the water and the bottom of the bridge would be insufficient to permit passage of a new generation of megaships.

We beg to differ.  The height limit on the Panama Canal, as determined by the Bridge of the Americas, which is, and was in 1987 as well (since the bridge opened in the 1960’s), 201 feet above the high tide. (That’s why the Corps of Engineers did this study in New Jersey.)

(An aside: the print Times had a graphic listing the Oasis class as the largest cruise ships.  The Oasis class has a height of 236 ft (78 meters), but it has retractable funnels that the cruise line says lower 36 ft, allowing the ship to go under bridges (barely) with a 201 ft clearance.)

Given Tampa’s location and business, it would have been logical to build the bridge at least that high. Anyone could have known.

That was Quick

Last week we wrote about how the Tampa Bay area lags behind in transportation infrastructure project.  The next day, in the Tribune, appeared an article saying the following:

Dismayed that Orlando is getting billions of dollars for transportation projects while the Tampa Bay area lags far behind, local interests have sharpened their focus to set priorities to present to the area’s legislative delegation next month.

Representatives of the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority agreed that the region needs to go on the offensive to make transportation a priority.

The article does not say when this agreement happened, but, if it actually happened, great.  There is one problem though:

Vergara pointed out the worldwide recession and extreme conservative political views complicate transportation initiatives.

“We don’t have anything on the ground,” Duncan said about transportation improvements, suggesting the region needed incremental projects that can show signs of success. “People need to be able to kick the tires.”

Wrong.  Orlando is getting $4 billion in improvements.  That is hardly incremental.  The projects are transformative.  What we have already is incremental.  Transportation needs to be an integrated system.

Tampa Bay keeps getting burned because it is always working in incremental and poorly thought out ways.   We work hard to punch below our weight (like going after call centers instead of headquarters or Bass Pro Shops instead of turbine factories). Thus, we struggle to get what we need while other regions get what they want.

What’s Up, Guvna?

This week the Governor vetoed funding for regional planning councils/commissions, again. We are not going to get in a debate about the specific performance of specific planning councils.  As any reader of Tampasphere knows, we think the Tampa Bay area needs better planning.  However, the Governor has presented no alternative to the planning councils nor has he presented ideas to make planning in Florida better.  Quite the contrary.

There was also an interesting quote from the Governor explaining his reasoning for the veto:

When a Times reporter asked why, Scott said his standard questions on vetoes were: “Is it a statewide project, did it go through a good process, is it something that we’ve seen returns?” But he would not comment specifically on his veto of the planning council funding, referring questions to his staff.

So SunRail is a statewide project?  More interesting, by signing the SunRail project, the Governor must be saying that he believes it will give a good return on the billion dollar plus investment.  Apparently, publicly owned rail systems can be a good investment.  Good to know.

¿Que Pasa, Gobernador?

This week the Governor signed the bill banning Florida governmental entities doing business with companies that do business in Cuba and Syria, though he attached a signing statement that said that the law conflicted with Federal law and was unenforceable. (signing statement here).  As the Times notes, that signing statement did not go down well with the supporters of the bill, so the Governor backtracked:

“Constitutional lawyers have told me that this legislation will be challenged in court. I signed the bill regardless of that fact, and it will become a state law on July 1, 2012,” he wrote. “As Governor, it is my sworn duty to uphold the laws of the state and I will meet any challenge to this law in court as necessary.”

Scott’s move was a peace offering of sorts to Miami’s Cuban-American lawmakers, who were incensed when he signed the bill into law at the Freedom Tower — only to issue a letter afterward that suggested the law is unconstitutional.

So the Governor is planning on using scarce state funds on easily predictable court cases.  The Federal government already has sanctions on both Cuba and Syria. This bill will not accomplish anything other than putting Florida at a competitive disadvantage to 49 other states and wasting scarce state money on litigation.

Hotels from the Past and for the Future

The Tribune reported that the Floridan Hotel is slowly getting ready to fully open.  (Of note, the Floridan’s website says June 2012.)We can’t wait.  What else is there to say.

We also got confirmation that the Epicurean Hotel on Howard is to start construction this year.

From the Tribune – click on picture for full article

Plans are back on for The Epicurean, a boutique hotel across from the landmark Bern’s Steak House. Construction is slated for sometime this year.

“The hotel is happening,” Bern’s spokeswoman Brooke Palmer confirmed.

Bern’s long has planned for a hotel. But The Epicurean project has been on hold since 2008, when Bern’s owner David Laxer announced he had been unable to secure financing.

We are very happy about this, too.  It is a rare, truly urban design and, hopefully, will set a standard for Howard and other areas.  Now change the code to make this kind of design the norm in Tampa.

In a Van Down By The River

The Tribune also reported this week that the Owners of the Cap Trust building in downtown want to turn the site of the defunct Trump Tower project (formerly a parking lot) into a parking lot.

Three years after the planned Trump Tower Tampa condo project went bust, city officials are letting the downtown site revert to its previous use as a parking lot.

The city council approved the five-year temporary use last week over the appeals of their own staff, who argued that the city has spent the past 12 years trying to get rid of waterfront parking lots to guarantee public access to the river.

“We believe the decision that was made over a decade ago should remain,” said Cathy Coyle, the city’s planning manager.

Letting the former site go back to being a parking lot for the neighboring CapTrust building could lead to similar requests for sites elsewhere, Coyle said.

Huh?  The City’s planning department opposed putting a parking lot on the river, but the City Council, taking time away from Cuban sandwich debates, said it was ok.  That’s hip.

The owners argued that they needed the parking because the Cap Trust building had inadequate parking and was at a competitive disadvantage.  Furthermore,

CapTrust owner Trey Vick told council members the lot will be temporary.

“We do not have an intention of creating a parking lot in the riverfront district,” Vick said.

While it exists, the lot will remain free to the public and will provide access to the Riverwalk, which crosses the property.

Not to be too picky, but they are, in fact, asking to put a parking lot on the riverfront – and for five years.  Does anyone really think the City Council that went against their planning department and the City’s long effort to fix up the riverfront will force the removal of the parking lot in five years?  We are not against property owners having adequate parking but this is the downtown riverfront.  It is not supposed to have a parking lot.

To be honest, aside from all their other flaws, this is a major reason we do not get very excited over master plans – because they require the political will to stick to them, and that is sorely lacking in this area.

Thankfully, the decision is not final.

The change must be reviewed by the Hillsborough Planning Commission because it alters the city’s land-development code. It will return for a final council vote in a few weeks.

There is a plan to fix the riverfront.  Stick to it.

List of the Week

Our list this week is for the “most literate cities.” The methodology is described as:

This study focuses on six key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

Washington leads the list, followed by Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Boston.  Not one city from Florida is on the list.

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