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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Politics

Proposed ferry provider eyes future business in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: February 18, 2014 at 07:52 AM

TAMPA — If a high-speed passenger ferry some day zips across Tampa Bay, it would mark the latest expansion of HMS Global Maritime – a $100 million corporation that operates a fleet of vessels from military transports to luxury riverboat cruises.

Last year, Inc. magazine ranked HMS in the top 25 percent of the publication’s 5,000 fastest- growing companies based on revenue growth of 354 percent between 2009 and 2012.

Emerging from the former Hornblower Cruises and Events, a San Francisco-based company that had operated dining yachts on the West Coast for decades, the corporation moved to New Albany, Ind., in 2000, and now operates government boats and installations, maritime consulting services, and luxury riverboat cruises.

The company says it now has its eye on Tampa Bay for two reasons — no other regular ferry service operates here and it can count on a steady revenue stream from MacDill Air Force Base employees traveling to and from south Hillsborough County each day.

The real payoff would come later if HMS Ferries adds another high-speed catamaran for after-hours and weekend cruises between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“The MacDill transit service is not enough to pay for everything, but it’s enough of a foundation to build on for a business plan that makes sense,” said Mark Fernandez, Florida project manager for HMS Ferries.

“There is so much interest in utilizing the ferry for nontransit operations, we feel when you add that to the known base, it makes sense.”

HMS research has shown strong support from business organizations on both sides of the bay for multiple ferry routes.

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Businesses in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties support multiple ferry routes, Fernandez said, because it could induce traffic-weary residents to frequent businesses on the other side of the bay.

Imagine boarding a ferry in downtown Tampa and heading to St. Petersburg for a Tampa Bay Rays game or a concert at the Mahaffey Theater. Likewise, Pinellas residents might like taking the ferry to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play or a Broadway musical at the Straz Center.

Before any of that can happen, HMS Ferries has to sell Hillsborough commissioners on its plan, which calls for the county to pay around $20 million to buy two boats and to build a boat basin and docks near Apollo Beach. HMS says it will not require a subsidy to operate the ferries.

The county has listed eight conditions that must be met before a deal is struck. They include approvals from government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. County leaders also want to know if the ferry will help get cars off the road in south county.

“One of the preconditions is that we do our own feasibility study on ridership and operations so we can compare that with other alternative transportation projects and how it stacks up,” County Administrator Mike Merrill said. “Does (the ferry) really make the most sense economically for us compared to running more rapid transit buses from south county to MacDill?”

One such study has already been done by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which handles transportation planning for the county. Several years ago, the county asked the MPO to look at whether water ferry routes were a feasible transportation alternative, and where the routes should be.

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The 2010 study concluded water transit is competitive from a cost standpoint and makes for an easier commute than driving. However, it wouldn’t succeed if riding the ferry takes longer than driving a vehicle or riding a bus. The MPO suggested a ferry from southern Hillsborough to MacDill stood the best chance of success.

“There was a fair amount of travel demand from folks who work on the base,” said Beth Alden, the MPO’s assistant director. “It’s a long drive around the bay and there are tolls part of the way. That’s what makes this particular link competitive. It means there is demand every single day of the week.”

Some people already have asked the county why it should the county should pay for the boats and docks with tax dollars. The short answer, transportation officials say, is that most mass transit operations are subsidized by taxpayers.

The federal government has recognized the benefits mass transit brings the environment and local economies by relieving traffic congestion. That’s why Hillsborough leaders think they might be able to get a federal grant to defray some of the up-front costs should they approve the ferry service.

Fernandez said in Jacksonville, where HMS Ferries operates a ferry across the St. Johns River, the city government pays for everything — fuel, employees and ferry maintenance. In Hillsborough County, HMS is offering to pay operations costs.

“When you hear somebody say, ‘Why should the county be subsidizing a private company?’ I would turn that around and say, ‘Isn’t it nice a private company is willing to help subsidize and support our county,’”

Fernandez said.

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What HMS Global Maritime brings to the proposed public-private partnership is decades of experience, not just in running ferries but in many aspects of maritime planning and operations. Hornblower Cruises and Events, a division of the larger company, operates day cruises to national park sites on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In April, Hornblower will take over ferry cruises at Niagara Falls.

The corporation also operates luxury river cruises. The American Queen, formerly the Delta Queen, was launched in spring 2012 after undergoing an $8 million renovation. Based in Memphis, the boat cruises the Mississippi River to New Orleans in warmer weather, then north in the fall to the Ohio River.

This spring, the company will launch the American Empress, a 223-passenger riverboat that will cruise the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

The company has had a few hiccups. In 2011, two tourists were injured on Alcatraz when a tram operated by Hornblower swerved into a pipe sticking out of a wall, causing the shuttle’s roof to collapse. The injured people were taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Last August, one of the ferries the company runs to the Statue of Liberty made a “hard landing” into a dock on Liberty Island, causing minor injuries to nine of the boat’s 497 passengers. The Coast Guard said in January the boat’s engines shut down, causing the crash, but it made no determination as to why. The Coast Guard had no further information about the incident last week.

Fernandez said his is a different HMS division than the Statue Cruises and he couldn’t comment.

“All I can say is that ferry transportation is by far the safest, with fewest injuries, mode of transportation,” he said in an email. “In fact, before we start handing out helmets to ferry passengers, we should consider that last year more people – 1,200 – were sent to the hospital from injuries incurred while texting-while-walking than riding a ferry.”

msalinero@tampatrib.com

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