TAMPA — Prospects for a high-speed commuter ferry between South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base, with service envisioned for downtown Tampa and St, Petersburg on weekends and evenings, appear to be gaining political support and bureaucratic momentum.
The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization board on Monday unanimously endorsed a high priority designation for the proposed high-speed ferry in the MPO’s Long Range Transportation plan update next year.
The MPO will draft a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation stating its intent to assign a priority equal to or higher than express bus service for the ferry concept.
The MPO priority designation builds momentum by opening an avenue for possible state funding, MPO officials said.
Ed Turanchik, an attorney with the Tampa firm Akerman Senterfitt who recruited Indiana-based HMS Ferries Inc.,to participate in the project, said he’s confident discussions with Hillsborough County could be headed toward some resolution within 60 days. The county is expected to be the primary government partner with HMS Ferries
“No other transportation option can do so much for so little, with so much private investment, and that is so cool,” said Turanchik.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said in an email he did not want to commit to any date for an agreement and funding with HMS until a South County terminal site is selected, but said the MPO’s action is an important step.
“It substantiates the feasibility of the concept, as well as verifying that there could be an acceptable level of automobile trips being removed from roads if workers are taking the ferry versus cars or buses,” Merrill said.
“This preliminary endorsement by MPO gives us comfort in conducting more specific talks with HMS. Once a (terminal) site is settled on by HMS and all of the substantive issues with the site are resolved, we can then begin to discuss specific terms of the proposed business arrangement.
Merrill said the county and taxpayers should not be at risk for the up-front capital cost of the project.
“So, we are preliminarily looking at ways to incentivize or support operations within some limitations; it’s too early to speculate the level of funding incentives the county might provide,” Merrill said.
In addition to the MPO action, County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who was cautious about county funding participation when the ferry proposal was publicly disclosed in May, said Monday the ferry has been the talk of South Hillsborough County.
“We have a love fest going on with the high-speed ferry,” said Murman, an MPO board member. “South County doesn’t have a lot of bus services, Why have we not made more use of our water?”
Current developments fall short of a commitment on where upward of $18 million required for the docks and ferries will be found, let alone formal approval of elected officials, but the proposed ferry service gained support Monday from MPO board members with disparate backgrounds.
“We as a region have a lot of momentum,” said Tampa International Airport Chief Executive Officer and MPO board member Joe Lopano, who in the past three weeks has announced major international air service additions.
“We have a dock at the airport,” Lopano said, not entirely one of his characteristic quips given the passenger water service that Boston’s Logan International Airport enjoys.
HMS customarily uses government owned docks and equipment and operates waterway services, It said in May it would operate a Tampa Bay ferry without public subsidy, and since then has been receptive to considering an alternative funding plan, HMS executive Mark Fernandez said.
“We need to be here,” Fernandez said,
The county is viewing the high-speed ferry concept as an economic development project, rather than a transportation project.
That type of arrangement would differ from what was envisioned when the project was revealed in May in which advocates suggested the county could fund capital costs of the project, with HMS accounting for operational costs of about $3.5 million annually.
“The expansion of the ferry to provide service to key economic nodes could make it an attractive transportation tool that serves an economic development goal of creating a multi-modal transportation network that meets the needs of our current workforce and the workforce we would like to attract to our county,” Merrill said.