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Carlton: Commissioner Choo Choo to the rescue? This time it's boats

It would be wrong to call former Hillsborough County Commissioner/transit wonk Ed Turanchik a blind squirrel.

As in: Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and again, as the saying goes.

Or to compare him to a broken cuckoo clock — right at least twice a day.

Turanchik was, after all, behind a sensible idea of getting us around by rail, a concept snubbed thus far by the local citizenry. That earned him the nickname Commissioner Choo Choo.

He is also famously the guy who thought we could land the 2012 Summer Olympics — which sounds less silly lately with a Republican National Convention behind us and the Bollywood Oscars on the way.

So might Turanchik — lawyer, thinker, dreamer — have found a pie-in-the-sky idea for advancing transportation around here that could, just maybe, improbably, can-you-believe-it — happen? And even work?

I say pie-in-the-sky. He says, "Wow." Also, "Cool." He says it about this a lot.

This week, Turanchik stood before the Hillsborough County Commission representing HMS Ferries Inc., the guys who run ferries at the Statue of Liberty and Alcatraz, and also South Swell Development Group LLC, and spun this latest vision:

High-speed ferry service sailing employees of MacDill Air Force Base back and forth across Tampa Bay between work and their homes in southern Hillsborough County. That's 5,000 employees, 90 percent who said they would use this. And maybe more intriguing to those of us who do not make that commute: The ferries also could sail between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The company providing the service would pay operating costs.

Now for a completely different kind of wow: All for somewhere around $24 million in public money. Crazy, right?

At that meeting, Turanchik made a point I have always found confounding about where we live: "Most urban areas clustered around water use their water to move people," he said, something we've never quite managed.

A map shows how those South Hillsborough residents who work at MacDill make the roundabout trip up and over and around to the military base, 23 to 35 miles each way. By ferry, it would be about 6 miles in 17 minutes. It could eliminate 1,250 cars driving the highways during rush hours.

"A transportation investment that takes people off the road," as Turanchik pitches it.

So this week, appropriately cautious county commissioners approved up to $125,000 to study the feasibility of all this. They sounded interested but also on high alert, given voters are in no mood to boondoggle.

A serious checklist before this can happen includes a land swap for ferry terminals, access to the base through the Department of Defense, buy-ins from assorted players and federal grant money intended for ferry service, to name a few.

And if it all turns out to be too crazy, if the numbers just will not work, if this week's sunny sales pitch is too good to be true, no one will be completely surprised. Except maybe Turanchik.

And if a blind squirrel has come up with a pretty good nut, Commissioner Choo Choo becomes, as one enthusiastic citizen said at that meeting, Commissioner Tug Boat.

It would be, to borrow a word, cool.

Carlton: Commissioner Choo Choo to the rescue? This time it's boats 02/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 6, 2014 8:28pm]
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