RUSKIN - A high-speed ferry that would run between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base could bolster the economy in South Shore and take thousands of cars off the road each day, its promoters say.
HMS Ferries, the nation's largest ferry service operator, along with Hillsborough County's Ed Turanchik, widely known for promoting transportation issues locally, made a presentation at Hillsborough Community College in Ruskin on Tuesday.
Audience members largely were receptive.
A few dozen people showed up for the meeting and nearly all supported the project, which would transport members of the military and military contractors to and from work during the work week. The ferry service also could be used to transport people from Apollo Beach to downtown St. Petersburg or Tampa on weekends or during off-peak hours.
Four sites are being considered for a ferry terminal, all in the Port Redwing area. Turanchik said because negotiations still are under way, he is not ready to reveal the exact sites or who owns them.
If the ferry project receives needed approvals, and Hillsborough County provides land and infrastructure at the staging area, the service could be up and running within two years, Turanchik said.
The plan was unveiled in May.
"I love the way Seattle runs its ferries and I could never understand why we let this huge expanse of water sit idol," said Joan Shalleck, who has lived in the South Shore area for more than nine years. Now, she said, she has to drive 20 miles out of her way to cross a bridge to St. Petersburg, or a similar distance to get to downtown Tampa.
"I think this is a great idea," said Mia Zuzack, a retired military spouse, who travels often to MacDill. "I'd really like to see this happen."
Joe Kilgore, a member of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, which cosponsored the meeting with the community college, said he has helped HMS and Turanchik get in touch with base officials to hammer out plans for the ferry service.
"It's cheaper than paying the tolls for the Crosstown (Lee Roy Selmon Expressway) and it takes 30 minutes off the commute," said Kilgore, who is retired from the Army. "I might even go to a baseball game if this goes through."
Kilgore said he mentors small businesses and thinks a ferry service would bring people to South Shore who don't know much about it.
Because so much of the Tampa Bay shoreline in South Shore already is protected through the county's' Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program, it's a good draw for eco-tourists, said Kilgore, who owns South Shore Outdoor Adventures for kayaking and other outdoor activities. Having a ferry service in the area would give people one more reason to visit, he said.
"I have lived in areas where they have ferry service and have been on their boats and they're great," he said of HMS, which runs ferry service for the Marine Corps and at tourist sites such as Niagara Falls and the Statue of Liberty.
County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who attended the meeting, said she envisions a park that could be used by the public, even if the ferry service doesn't survive.
The initial public investment would be about $1.5 million a year in phased increments, according to HMS. The cost for dredging, docks, ferry terminals and parking is estimated to be $9 million to $11 million.
The ferries - there likely would be three - would transport 250-300 people at a time.
"It's all about getting a return on our investment,' Murman said. "It has to be about jobs and the kind of return we get. It's another great opportunity for us, especially in economic development."