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Editorial: Passenger ferry makes a splash

Published:   |   Updated: May 23, 2013 at 08:51 AM

Some people will be quick to ridicule a proposal for high-speed passenger ferry service across Tampa Bay. Various bay ferry service ideas have been floated through the years and usually were quickly scuttled by economic or political realities.

But the skeptics shouldn’t be too quick to scoff this time.

The numbers and details appear feasible. The service might offer an economical way to relieve traffic congestion and provide south Hillsborough County residents a much-needed alternative route to MacDill Air Force Base.

As with any such venture, county commissioners must be cautious, but we were intrigued by HMS Global Maritime’s presentation to the editorial board Wednesday. The firm has extensive experience with maritime operations throughout the nation, including running a ferry in Jacksonville.

HMS executives see a market for passenger service that would run the six miles from Gibsonton to MacDill. The half-hour run would cost about $5 each way. The company would operate a tram service at MacDill to get passengers to work.

HMS officials note there are more than 5,300 households in south Hillsborough with a MacDill employee. Those residents face a roughly 32-mile trip by car, and the roads and base entrances are jammed during rush hours.

Company officials note base employees get a monthly $245 transportation stipend, which would cover the ferry’s daily $10 two-way costs. And they estimate passengers would save more than $2,300 or more a year on commuting costs.

Greg Dronkert, president of HMS Ferries, Inc., says the venture would be profitable even if far less than half those south county MacDill workers used the ferry.

Company executives see additional potential revenue from using ferries for off-hour services, such as delivering Tampa residents to St. Petersburg for Rays games or bringing St. Petersburg residents to downtown Tampa for events at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

The company promises to pay all the operating costs. It wants the county — perhaps with state and federal help — to pay for capital costs: two 250-passenger vessels and the parking lot-docking station that would have to be built in south Hillsborough.

All this could add up to more than $20 million — hardly chump change. But the overall costs don’t appear quite as daunting when one considers alternatives.

The plan could take 1,250 cars off the roads during peak traffic times — that’s more than half of what one lane of the interstate can carry in an hour, and such a reduction should have a notable impact on local roads.

According to the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, adding two lanes to a state highway can cost about $9 million a mile solely for construction. Right of way and land acquisition costs can easily double that.

Attorney and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS, says using buses to carry a comparable number of passengers would cost twice as much as the ferry.

He also points to Central Florida’s SunRail commuter rail project, whose peak hour passenger capacity is 2,000. It will cost $1.2 billion for infrastructure alone and will require roughly a $25 million operating subsidy.

Turanchik is often derided for his ambitious ideas — hosting the 2012 Olympics and developing a rail line chief among them. But communities need visionaries, and if his timing has not always been perfect, Turanchik has largely been right about the need for the region to find more efficient ways to transport people than simply building more roads.

Unlike rail, the public’s upfront ferry investment would be relatively modest, and the risks appear manageable. Should the venture fail, taxpayers would end up with vessels it could sell and a terminal it could lease or sell.

There are plenty of numbers to check and questions to ask — including the environmental impacts. Maybe further inspection will sink the idea. But the high-speed passenger ferry also provides the kind of affordable transportation solution a region along the water needs. It deserves serious consideration.

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