TAMPA — The possibility of a publicly funded ferry to take commuters from Williams Park in Gibsonton across Tampa Bay to MacDill Air Force Base advanced a step this week after Hillsborough's long-range transportation board declared the concept technically feasible.
Members of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, board voted Tuesday to approve a consultant's finding that potential ridership and other factors make the concept feasible. Whether any public agency will pursue the project remains in question.
"I think there are a lot of kinks to work out … but I do think it's worth exploring," said Sandy Murman, a county commissioner who sits on the MPO board.
The board's action clears the way for a public agency to tap a $475,000 federal grant intended to jump-start waterborne commuter services that could reduce rush-hour traffic jams. County commissioners who serve on the MPO board said Hillsborough and other local governments are unlikely to fund the project, however.
"I do caution people that this cannot be another government project," Murman said. "It just would not be feasible with the economy like it is."
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, also on the MPO board, said he would not support the county subsidizing a ferry.
"With all the issues we've got, if we tried to run a ferry service, we'd be laughed out of County Center," he said.
Mike Williamson, a consultant who worked on the feasibility study, said the grant requires public ownership of the ferry service, though a private enterprise could operate it.
MPO executive director Ray Chiaramonte said Tuesday's vote would give officials more time to find a funding source.
"This just buys us time," he said. "We don't want this grant to go away."
Hillsborough County was awarded the grant in 2009. MPO officials said the money must be returned if Hillsborough is not going to pursue a project, but it was not clear this week when that decision must be made.
Williamson said consultants considered various routes across the bay before zeroing in on the Gibsonton to MacDill route. A high number of base employees live in the South Shore area, and computer modeling showed a water taxi on that route could compete with car and bus service in terms of cost and time, he said.
Consultants recently surveyed 1,200 MacDill employees in the Riverview-Gibsonton area and determined that 87 percent would use the ferry if it were reliable and comparable in cost and speed to travel by road.
Capital costs for acquiring vessels and retrofitting Williams Park and the base for commercial service, including upgrading the docks, are estimated at $2.4 million.
At the fare most favored by those surveyed, $2.50 one-way or $5 round-trip, the estimated $1 million annual operating costs were projected to exceed fare revenue by about $600,000 a year with an anticipated 250 riders daily. That shortfall would have to be offset by a government subsidy or possibly other ferry uses during off-peak hours.
A MacDill spokesman said Tuesday that base officials cooperated with the study but declined to comment on the proposal.
Some board members suggested the project's value could exceed its operating costs if it paved the way for a water taxi service available to the public.
"Any kind of transportation that serves the public is not going to break even," said Lisa Monteleone, a Tampa City Council member who sits on the MPO board. "Even our roads don't break even."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at email@example.com.