Ken Hagan floats plan for Hillsborough marina, permanent ferry service
TAMPA — As time runs out on the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot program, area leaders will soon be faced with a decision on the future of water transportation in Tampa Bay.
For several years, Hillsborough County has had a standing agreement with two companies, HMS Ferries and South Swell, to bring commuter ferries from south county to MacDill Air Force Base. But a mix of federal red tape, environmental concerns and lack of funding has stalled the project.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan wants the county to rework the agreement with the hopes of getting boats in the water sooner than later.
On top of that, Hagan is proposing the county build a marina or two using the $22 million it received two years ago in the BP oil spill settlement. The marina, or marinas, would service the ferries and also create a public space, boat slips and maybe waterfront space for businesses that can generate money for the county.
Hagan said the surge in ridership during the six months that ferries have carried riders between St. Petersburg and Tampa demonstrated the demand for utilizing waterways as transit.
“Clearly there’s a market for this service as evidence by how successful the Cross-Bay ferry has been,” Hagan said. “I would like there to be multiple routes and potentially multiple marinas that can support the ferry and be a revenue generator for the county.”
Hagan recently joined a majority of commissioners in rejecting a proposal to fast-track the ferry project using money set aside for transportation needs. Instead, commissioners voted to plan, design and engineer the project and make a decision on how to pay for it later.
Now, it’s Hagan’s hope that the county and the private companies can come to a new agreement that pushes more of the risk — and potential reward — to the private sector. In return, the county would agree to a long-term deal, up to 20 years, and public subsidizes would be unlocked if certain conditions are met and milestones are reached.
Commissioners will decide at their Wednesday meeting whether to allow county staff to negotiate a deal with HMS Ferries and South Swell, and if they should continue to hold onto the BP money until a deal is reached.
“This has the potential to be an incredible model for future multi modal transportation efforts,” Hagan said.
If commissioners go this route, it is likely the county would reject a $4.8 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant awarded to the project. While the grant was celebrated when it was announced, some local officials and project proponents have since said that the federal money comes with too many regulatory hurdles.
The existing agreement between the county and the ferry companies includes commuter service between south county and the base and additional routes between south county and downtown Tampa and Tampa and St. Petersburg during the day, nights and weekends, if there is demand for it.
Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS Ferries and South Swell, said he is open to hearing how the county would alter the current agreement but it will come down to the details.
Permanent service could begin in three years once they receive the green light, Turanchik said.
“The interest (from Hagan) is clearly welcome,” he said, “And people are ready to get this opened to MacDill.”