GIBSONTON — A proposal intended to steer traffic from clogged pavement to open water may soon gain steam — at least advocates hope so.
The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization recently introduced to stakeholders an idea to ferry commuters by boat from southeast Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
It would cost about $2.2 million to acquire vessels for the project, consultants say, plus an unknown amount for dock improvements and expanded parking facilities at Williams Park near Gibsonton, which would serve as the pickup and dropoff spot.
The ferry route would require up to four 42-seat vessels, traveling up to 40 mph, according to the consultants' feasibility report. One option would be for passengers to pay $5.60, an amount projected to recoup operating costs. Lower fares are also included in the report for consideration.
About 5,600 MacDill military or civilian workers commute daily to the base from Gibsonton or Apollo Beach, according to the study. The service would start with 150 to 600 riders, consultants estimate, before growing to about 1,400 by 2035. Still in its early phases, there is no projected start date for the project.
MPO committees will discuss it during public meetings this month, beginning Wednesday. The proposal is then scheduled to go before the MPO board in December and would ultimately require approval by the Hillsborough County Commission.
The MacDill route emerged from a feasibility study of 12 potential paths across Tampa Bay. The MPO commissioned the study after Hillsborough County received a $475,000 federal grant to develop commuter ferry services in 2009. The grant requires a 20 percent match in cash or in-kind services, according to county staff.
Beth Alden, MPO multimodal systems manager, said one of the reasons the Williams Park-MacDill route scored higher than others is that ferry service must be cheaper and more convenient than car travel to lure commuters off the road.
"Driving from Gibsonton to MacDill, you have this big loop up and around the bay instead of going straight across," Alden said, adding that many commuters likely pay tolls to use the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, making the cost of the ferry more attractive.
The 5-acre Williams Park is owned by the state and managed by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. Kurt Gremley, a county land acquisitions manager, said the ferry idea was preliminary and the state would have to approve any change in the park's use. Also, county government would hold its own public awareness meetings before such a proposal were final.
The consultants' report estimated that the average South Shore resident spends nearly an hour to drive about 30 miles one way to MacDill.
By ferry, the trip would be about 6 miles. Based on an analysis of traffic patterns, congestion and wait times for ferry service, consultants concluded that traveling to the base by ferry would shave about 12 minutes from the average South Shore resident's morning commute. The time savings would also vary depending on where commuters live.
MacDill helped to survey personnel's interest in a commuter ferry. Of about 1,325 survey responses, more than 1,175 favored a south Hillsborough to MacDill connection.
Mike Peterson of Apollo Beach represented the South Shore Chamber of Commerce at the stakeholders' meeting in October. Last week, he said he supports the Gibsonton-MacDill ferry route, although leaders in Hillsborough's South Shore community had hoped in the past for a launch site in Apollo Beach.
"We're happy that something is being looked at," Peterson said. "I think it's a viable first step for water taxi service, to see if we can get it going and if it can operate on time."
Chris Smith, spokeswoman for Williams Park neighbor Mosaic Fertilizer, said last week that the phosphate processor has concerns about how a ferry service at the park would mesh with shipping and truck traffic from its plant.
Sam Sudman, a board member of the Sun City Center Community Association, said he liked the ferry idea but thinks more information is needed before the county pursues it.
"I think it would be a boon to the area on this side of the bay," Sudman said. "But there are factors that need to be evaluated before we develop . . . another transportation project that ends up costing the taxpayers a subsidy."
The base has dock facilities used by military police that might be suitable for a ferry landing, along with an on-base shuttle to transport commuters to work stations.
The idea may have its share of challenges, however. The report included security concerns at MacDill and a shortage of parking at Williams Park, which has about 40 spaces. Existing docks and shelters also would need to be improved.
The effects of inclement weather, of cargo or cruise vessels using the shipping channel, and of slow-speed manatee protection zones will also be considered.
MacDill officials could not be reached for comment last week but, according to a report addendum, base managers told consultants that security issues were not a "deal-breaker."
Susan Marschalk Green can be reached at email@example.com.