TAMPA — Greg Dronkert said he gets many requests from people hoping his company will start passenger ferry service in their community.
The president of HMS Ferries Inc. told a group of civic leaders in Tampa on Wednesday that he is usually skeptical about such inquiries. But lawyer Ed Turanchik was persuasive in his pitch that a market exists here and, after further study, Dronkert was convinced.
"Ed's enthusiasm and the facts have brought us here today," Dronkert said. "What we have found is that Tampa Bay is ripe for this kind of service. And we like to think of ourselves as experts in marine transportation."
HMS and Turanchik formally unveiled plans for what they are calling high-speed ferry service that would start as commuter boat transportation between MacDill Air Force Base and southern Hillsborough County, home to many of its employees. Ferry boats also would be used for transportation to large events on either side of the bay, such as Tampa Bay Rays baseball games in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games in the Channel District.
Speakers at the presentation at the Tampa Bay Times Forum included Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman and Tampa Bay Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke.
"I think this has got some sex appeal to it," Buckhorn said.
Dronkert said he believes ferry service would work because of a captive audience of potential customers in the form of MacDill service members and employees who live in Hillsborough County. The company is convinced that a substantial number of those employees would be willing to forgo their car and commutes of 30 miles or more for a 20-minute ride on a catamaran across 6 miles of Tampa Bay.
Turanchik said the service in southern Hillsborough would likely be based in the Big Bend area. He declined to name a site, saying the company is exploring three or four options.
The price tag for building docks, parking areas, two boats big enough to carry 250 to 300 people and trams at MacDill to get riders to their workplace on base could range from $11 million to $17 million for the first phase of about three years. That amount could climb $24 million in outlying years if the service takes off and a larger ferry is needed.
Turanchik is seeking to have state, local and federal government pick up those capital costs. So far the project has not yet landed state or federal dollars, which could leave much of the balance to fall on Hillsborough County, at least initially
The amount may seem high in a time when government has been forced to cut back, but Turanchik asserted it's comparable to adding a new intersection on U.S. 19 or other minor roadway investments. And he maintains that the ferry service could take a couple of thousand cars off the roads leading to MacDill, such as Bayshore Boulevard.
Turanchik said HMS would bear the operating risks, a commitment he sought when he approached the company. Normally, Dronkert said, ferry service operations are subsidized by government, with the boat operators paid a fee, which the company is not seeking for this project.
HMS-Florida general manager Mark Fernandez said there is considerable federal grant money available for capital investment in ferry service that could sharply offset the cost to local government.
If the service doesn't work out, local government would own the boats, docks and other investments which it could sell, pitch to another ferry operator or turn into a public amenity, Turanchik said. In return, it gets a new commuter option that he said could be "just wow."
"We have the option to do something extraordinary," Turanchik said.
"No other transportation option can do so much for so little so fast with so much private investment that is so incredibly cool."
Turanchik said the point of Wednesday's announcement was to determine if there is public support for commuter ferry service and a public investment in it. Company officials said it could work out financial terms with local government during the next six months. If so, the service could be operational within 18 months to two years.
That's probably extremely optimistic. Local government leaders coincidentally launched the first of a series of meetings Wednesday to discuss how to address transportation needs at a time when taxes to pay for them are all but depleted.
"At this point in time, no other funders have stepped forward, such as the feds," said County Administrator Mike Merrill. "That then puts more pressure on us to evaluate and prioritize it along with other solutions."
Like Merrill, County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the idea is intriguing and would serve an important economic engine in MacDill, which is a priority of the broader transportation talks. Still, he wonders if this proposal muddies the broader discussion.
"Where do you focus the public's attention?" he asked. "How much appetite does the public have for another idea?"
HMS Ferries is an arm of Hornblower Marine Services, which provides water transportation services around the world to both commuters and tourists. Among its more well-known ferries are those that take people to the Statue of Liberty and below Niagara Falls in New York as well as to Alcatraz in California.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.