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Proposed ferry service could make dent in traffic

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Published:   |   Updated: May 23, 2013 at 09:05 AM
TAMPA -

A nationally regarded water transportation company has stepped forward to operate a high-speed ferry service for the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

HMS Ferries Inc., whose companies carry more than 16 million passengers annually from multiple ferry services in the Seattle area to cruises serving Alcatraz and Niagara Falls, announced preliminary plans Wednesday for a project that could provide high-speed ferry service here in about two years.

The concept would be based on core morning and late-afternoon commuting runs between south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base, providing a transportation option for 5,300 military families that could take thousands of cars off roadways and save commuters 30 minutes of driving time. The ferries would carry passengers, not their cars.

The same catamaran-type vessels, capable of speeds as fast as 35 knots, would be available to operate on weekends and possible midweek, off-peak hours between St. Petersburg and sites to be determined in Tampa. Those routes could serve events at the Forum, the Tampa Convention Center and Tropicana Field with shuttle service.

“We get offers to look at a lot of presentation bids and we are generally skeptical, but Tampa Bay is ripe for this kind of service,” said Gregory Dronkert, president of HMS Ferries Inc. in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

HMS’s involvement in the project is expected to create a true public-private partnership, a frequently discussed concept that can be difficult to achieve.

It’s the largest operator of high-speed car/passenger ferries in the nation, with operations in nine states and Japan, including military projects in Florida.

HMS operates a car and passenger ferry in the Jacksonville area across the St. Johns River between Mayport Village and Fort George Island, but the Tampa ferry would use lighter, high-speed vessels for passengers.

Transit ferries normally require a subsidy to operate, Dronkert said. But in the case of the MacDill commuter route and other runs built around that service, preliminary studies indicate the privately held company could successfully operate without local or state subsidies for operations, with HMS taking any risk for annual operating costs, estimated to be about $3.5 million at the onset.

Most ferry services use public-sector terminals, docks and facilities, just as airlines use public-sector airports, so the next step toward making the ferry plan feasible would be for a local entity, perhaps the county government, to seek federal funding for infrastructure.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, has been involved in preliminary discussions of the project and would be a likely resource for exploring funding opportunities.

“I am particularly supportive of investments that create jobs and boost innovative transportation options for people across Tampa Bay,” Castor said.

“Tampa Bay commuters are eager for more transit and travel alternatives, and I am especially pleased this proposed service could benefit thousands of our military members and their families who commute daily to MacDill Air Force Base, while taking cars off the road and relieving congestion in South County and South Tampa.”

The ferries would be designed to operate in inclement weather and would be more than seaworthy for the inland waters planned for service, HMS officials said.

Initial costs for vessels that would carry about 250 to 300 people and connecting trams at MacDill Air Force Base would be about $7 million.

Waterways, docks, parking and ferry terminal costs are estimated at $9 million to $11 million, although a pilot operation could reduce those costs to $4 million.

HMS Ferries would finance all capital assets, so the initial public investment would be less than $1.5 million a year in phased increments.

HMS would operate the ferry and the terminals. If the project were to fall short of expectations and shut down, the government would retain all assets and improvements.

The concept outlined Wednesday follows previous studies that have hit obstacles when they reached the point of how a high-speed ferry would be financed.

The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization commissioned two studies on water transit in recent years.

The first looked at potential markets that could be served and found the most promising connection was between MacDill and the South Shore area, where a number of base employees live and must drive a circuitous route to reach the base, MPO assistant executive director Beth Alden said.

The second study detailed the route between MacDill and South Shore and found the project was feasible, but required more public support than was available through the one-time federal grant the county had obtained.

Ed Turanchik — a longtime transportation advocate as an elected official —followed up on the MPO studies in an effort to launch the ferry project.

Turanchik, also well-known as a community activist for supporting rail projects, drew on the MPO studies and found a company in HMS interested in the Tampa concept.

At a presentation to business owners and state, county and city officials in St. Petersburg on Wednesday afternoon, Turanchik emphasized how businesses and professional sports teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays could attract hundreds of new customers by promoting the ferry service across the bay.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, who represents South St. Petersburg, said he would support the ferry plans in the House.

“We want to do whatever we can on the state level,” he said.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ken Welch raised questions about the potential costs, but said he liked the concept.

“It seems intuitive with Pinellas being surrounded by water, Tampa Bay being our identity, that we’d use the water as a means of transportation,” Welch said.

“The devil is in the details and in the numbers, but I think it was a very positive presentation.”


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