TAMPA — A multimillion-dollar proposal to launch a high-speed ferry service crossing Tampa Bay inched forward Wednesday as Hillsborough County commissioners approved spending up to $125,000 to study its feasibility.
The ferry would primarily shuttle MacDill Air Force Base employees who live in southern Hillsborough to the base from a terminal near Apollo Beach. Routes linking downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg on nights and weekends could be added.
Most of the money commissioners approved spending Wednesday — $100,000 of the $125,000 — will go to HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Group LLC, the private groups behind the proposal represented by lawyer and former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik. Some of that money will cover research Turanchik's clients already did for their unsolicited bid. The remaining $25,000 will cover any costs the county incurs as it researches the ferry.
Commissioner Victor Crist expressed concern this would set a precedent that would bring scores of developers forward looking for public money.
"We could get a line out the door," Crist said.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said that such spending is "the nature of the beast" of public-private partnerships. He seemingly convinced Crist, who eventually voted in favor of the expense, along with five other commissioners.
Commissioner Les Miller was the lone no vote. No one talked to him before the meeting about the proposed spending, Miller said, and he felt too many unanswered questions remain about the ferry's viability.
Turanchik, a longtime advocate of public transit, gave commissioners a slide-show sales pitch that made the ferry's success sound like a certainty.
"No other transportation option can do so much for so little, so fast, and with so much private sector involvement," said Turanchik, using a line he has been repeating for months. His presentation ended with one word displayed on the screen in blue: "WOW!"
Merrill was cooler on the proposal, which calls for the county to spend $24 million on docks, parking and the boats, with HMS covering operating expenses. A number of hurdles remain, he noted, including approval from the Department of Defense to land the ferry at the Air Force base, and an agreement with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land west of U.S. 41 and north of the TECO Big Bend Station in Apollo Beach that Turanchik's clients have proposed for a ferry terminal and park.
"There is much work to be done," Merrill said.
There is also the question of how to pay for it. Commissioners have been meeting for months with the county's three mayors to figure out ways to cover the costs of new roads and possibly transit projects because the pools of money they currently rely upon for transportation work are largely tapped.
In other action Wednesday, commissioners approved the final two contracts that complete the outsourcing of services formerly offered by the county's troubled Homeless Recovery program.
The county will pay the Salvation Army up to $470,000 per year to provide housing and other services for homeless single men and women, and will pay the Agency for Community Treatment Services, or ACTS, up to $630,132 per year to provide help to homeless people with mental health and substance abuse problems.
The county closed Homeless Recovery at the end of 2013 after a series of articles in the Tampa Bay Times highlighted problems with the program, which for years sent homeless families with children to live in squalid properties near sex offenders.
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.