TAMPA — Imagine trading your stressful, hourlong commute over congested highways for a 17-minute glide ride across the waters of Tampa Bay.
That’s an option that could someday be available to more than 5,000 MacDill Air Force Base employees if Hillsborough County commissioners approve a proposed ferry service between the base and Apollo Beach.
“It’s going to tremendously cut down on my time going to MacDill, as well as cutting down my gas costs,” said Darrell Wheat, a civilian employee at the base who lives near Apollo Beach. Wheat said he has talked to a number of other MacDill employees living in south Hillsborough who are excited about taking a boat to work.
The plans, proposed by the South Swell Development Group LLC and HMS Ferries Inc., call for the county to pay for construction of a dock and boat basin, and two high-speed catamarans. HMS Ferries would operate the service with no subsidy from the county.
In return, the county would get a mass-transit option that could be expanded later to run people across the bay between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner who represents the development group, said the ferry would initially take 1,200 cars a day off area highways by transporting employees to and from MacDill.
Plus, the county would net 26 acres of prime conservation land on Tampa Bay in a land swap with the developers.
“For roughly $20 million you get the equivalent of half a lane of interstate capacity in two years,” Turanchik said. “If you had to do the same thing with a roadway it would take hundreds of millions of dollars over a decade.”
County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the plan this morning then vote on paying for a study with a cap of $100,000.
The initial route for the ferry would be from MacDill to a dock and boat basin at the west end of the Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve, just north of Apollo Beach. Trams on the MacDill side would take employees to their jobs.
The docking terminal would include a waterfront recreation site called Schultz Ferry Park. The park would include a concession stand, restrooms and parking for ferry passengers and park visitors. Also, visitors could enjoy a half mile of beachfront, canoe and kayak launches, and a bike-share program.
Later, a third boat could be added and ferry service extended to points in Tampa and St. Petersburg, and maybe between the two cities’ downtowns, Turanchik said.
“You can envision people staying in downtown Tampa traveling to St. Petersburg, going to games, restaurants, museums, or heading to south county to go kayaking or fishing,” Turanchik said. “It will become something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the Southeast.”
The boats are built for open water, Turanchik said, so passengers won’t have to worry about a sudden storm shutting down the service.
But first the county has to approve the deal, which calls for an investment of $17 million to $20 million to build the boat basin and ferry terminal and to buy the two boats.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said eight conditions will have to be met before the county can approve the deal. Most important of the requirements, Merrill said, is that the county secure permission from the U.S. Department of Defense for the boats to dock on the Air Force base.
“We have gotten a nice letter from the base commander, but that doesn’t carry much weight,” Merrill said. “The final decision is made in Washington by the Department of Defense.”
And before the Defense Department makes its decision, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must OK the project, which would include some dredging for the 3-acre basin and a channel to reach it.
Also, the proposal needs a positive recommendation from the county’s Transportation Leadership Policy Group, made up of Hillsborough commissioners and mayors of the county’s three cities. The group is studying mass-transit options as part of a larger list of transportation projects the leaders hope will spur economic growth.
The land proposed as the site for the docking terminal is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The South Swell Group is proposing to trade 46 acres the company owns near an area called The Kitchen for the 20 acres where it would build the docks and boat basin.
Turanchik said the land the Swell Group is willing to trade is more valuable environmentally than the docking site, which consists mostly of dredge spoils. Proof of the land’s value as an ecological resource is that it’s on the acquisition list for the county’s conservation land-buying program, called ELAPP.
Merrill, the county administrator, said there are a couple of transportation grants the county could apply for to defray much of the cost of building the docking terminal. But first, the county will do its own study looking at probable ridership and operational costs.
“Until we can lay out what those costs are and ridership and what kind of subsidy the county would have to pay, we have no way to compare that to more buses or express lanes,” Merrill said.
“It’s kind of a fundamental business decision on what ultimately makes sense.”