TAMPA — The first ever ferry service across Tampa Bay moved a small step closer to reality Wednesday when Hillsborough County commissioners approved $100,000 to study the proposal.
The money will pay for a study and acquisition of research already done by the two companies collaborating on the project, South Swell Development Group and HMS Ferries. The companies hope if the county is satisfied with the study results, $17 million to $20 million in public money will be appropriated to build a docking terminal and boat basin and to buy two high-speed Catamarans.
The two ferry boats would run regular daily routes between a docking terminal just north of Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base, as well as trips to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg during non-peak hours. About 5,500 MacDill employees live in southern Hillsborough County and 90 percent of them said in a survey they would use the ferry if it was available. The ferry company would also provide trams to carry the employees to their job sites once they disembark at MacDill.
Former county Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who represents the development and ferry companies, pitched the proposal as a low-cost transportation option that would also benefit the local economy and the environment. Turanchik said the ferry would initially take 1,200 cars a day off area highways. The average MacDill employee’s commute would be cut by 30 minutes, Turanchik said, saving the employee $2,500 a year in gasoline and tolls.
Turanchik said he wasn’t sure how much tolls would cost, but MacDill employees’ fares would be covered by federal vouchers available to employees who use mass transit.
“It’s going to put money back in the local economy ... It’s an opportunity to stimulate the whole Gibsonton-U.S 41 corridor,” Turanchik said.
The developers are also proposing to build a waterfront recreation park at the docking terminal, at the west end of Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said the two businesses must meet eight conditions before the county will go further with the project. These include getting approval from state and federal agencies to build the docking terminal on land owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
The project would also need a positive recommendation from a transportation policy group made up of commissioners and the mayors of the county’s three cities. And the Pentagon would have to approve the ferry landing at the Air Force base.
“Following satisfaction of the eight preconditions, there would be an interim agreement that would deal with project development,” Merrill said. That’s when the county and development team would “get into the nitty gritty of ... how the ferry would operate.”
Most of the commissioners supported the study. Sandy Murman, who represents southern Hillsborough, said the potential benefits of the ferry service to the economy, the environment and to MacDill employees warrant further study.
“You have to take a first step to find out if you can take the next step,” Murman said. “That’s what this does because it sets up the feasibility study — to see if this subsidy is going to be a wise use of our tax dollars.”
Other commissioners expressed concerns that ridership for the ferry would never justify the county’s investment. The county could be left holding a useless dock and boats.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe questioned whether the deal was a true public-private partnership in which the county would still benefit even if it had to subsidize the costs of the operations. He compared the proposal to Tampa’s trolley car system whose supporters, Sharpe said, oversold its potential for moving downtown workers and its boost to the economy.
“I remember the conversation we had about the trolley and how it would remove traffic from our streets,” Sharpe said. “We sold it as something that it wasn’t and we’ve been taking a beating ever since.”
Mark Fernandez, project manager for HMS Ferries, said company officials would never have become involved in the proposal if they didn’t think it would be profitable. HMS Ferries is a subsidiary of HMS Global Marine and operates ferry service to the Statue of Liberty and Niagara Falls in New York and Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
“I report to the president of HMS Ferries, who scrubs potential business opportunities with such a sharp pencil — for us to get to this point, we would have to be satisfied with the potential,” Fernandez said.