Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Ed Turanchik promoting high-speed ferries as transit for Tampa Bay

TAMPA — Ed Turanchik, he of Olympic dreams and proposals for commuter rail as an antidote to traffic snarls, has a new big pitch.

Catch this: high-speed ferry service.

Turanchik, a lawyer with the Akerman Senterfitt firm, has been quietly pitching a proposal to some civic leaders and elected officials on behalf of a client hoping to operate a commuter ferry service in Tampa Bay.

The ferry service would focus on shuttling employees of MacDill Air Force Base to and from their homes in southern Hillsborough County, where many of them live. During noncommute times the ferries, with an initial capacity of 250 people, could potentially be used to carry passengers between southern Hillsborough, the Channel District in downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg.

"It's a great project," said Hillsborough County commissioner Sandra Murman, who said she has been talking with Turanchik for the better part of a year about it. "It would be great for eco-tourism. It would be great for south county."

Here's the rub: Turanchik and his client, HMS Global Maritime of New Albany, Ind., are seeking public money from the county, the state and possibly the federal government to build the docks, dredge bay beds near them and buy the boats. The price tag Murman says she was told: $24 million.

In exchange, the company would cover the operating costs, bearing the risk if it can't turn a profit, she said.

"You and I both know that the capital, up-front costs, that's the risk," said Murman, explaining her concerns about the proposal. "That's the big risk. And the county doesn't want to be the sole partner."

Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who has run for Tampa mayor, declined to comment for this story, stating that attorney-client privilege precludes him from confirming or denying any such proposal.

He did say this: "It sounds like a great idea."

Shortly after the interview attempt, though, Ackerman Senterfitt issued a release announcing a news conference for May 22 at which a "major transportation and economic development project will be introduced."

The release indicates the event will take place at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and be "co-hosted" by the Greater Tampa, St. Petersburg and South Shore chambers of commerce. It says similar introductions will be made in St. Petersburg and southern Hillsborough County.

Meanwhile, records submitted to the county and obtained by the Tampa Bay Times confirm that Turanchik outlined his client's proposal to state and county officials as recently as February. A memo written by Turanchik lays out the broad brushstrokes.

Its subject line: "Tampa Bay High Speed Ferry Service."

In it, Turanchik makes the case that there is a ferry market for thousands of base employees who make long commutes to work from parts of southern Hillsborough to MacDill at the southern tip of the Tampa peninsula. In a poll, many of those employees said they would welcome a ferry commuting option that the memo indicates could reduce the trip to as short as 15 minutes from close to an hour in some cases, particularly if taking a bus.

Many base employees qualify for a transit voucher from the government that would essentially pay their fares. The company estimates it could break even if as few as 1,200 people make round trips daily.

That base of business could make using the ferries for trips to and from Tampa and St. Petersburg viable during off-peak hours and for special events, particularly if transit is reoriented to get people where they need to go on land once they get off the boats.

The memo places the government price tag, in a mix of state and county tax support, at about $22 million over three years, for docks, dredging, boats, parking and other amenities. It calls for building the southern Hillsborough ferry station on land near Gibsonton currently owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and utilizing a former cargo basin on the east side of MacDill.

With minimal investment, boats could make use of existing docks near the Channel District and in downtown St. Petersburg.

The memo indicates that local government agencies have previously said ferry service could be a viable transit option, but those studies involved the use of smaller boats. This plan works because HMS would deploy bigger, faster boats, which would be particularly important since most base employees travel during narrow rush-hour windows, the memo contends.

While the company anticipates starting off with two 250-passenger-capacity boats, it would eventually deploy a new, up to 500-person capacity boat.

"We respectfully submit that the value of this public private partnership is substantial, the burdens and risks are appropriately and equitably distributed," the memo states. "Proceeding with this project expeditiously would be a great and a pleasant unexpected step forward for our whole region, and unquestionably convey the message that Tampa Bay is back and is building for a more sustainable future."

Turanchik is known for his big ideas. As a county commissioner in the 1990s, he was an avid backer of proposals to create a local commuter rail system in Hillsborough County that never won backing. He left the job to promote Tampa Bay for the 2012 summer Olympics, which went to London.

He ran for mayor of Tampa in 2011, in part reviving his pitch for local rail but also backing plans for a high-speed rail line linking Tampa with Orlando. Gov. Rick Scott nixed high-speed rail and Turanchik lost his mayoral bid to Bob Buckhorn.

Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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