RUSKIN — In the past few months, there have been several informational meetings conducted in and around Tampa, St. Petersburg and Apollo Beach about operating a high-speed commuter ferry between the South Shore area and Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base.
A gathering Tuesday at Hillsborough Community College's SouthShore campus in Ruskin reflected overwhelming community support for the project because there's a proven commuter market ready to reduce travel hassles each day to MacDill, where they work, and because the company providing the service has offered to pay the operating costs.
"I think this is one of the projects worth taking a look at from the standpoint of a ready bread and butter run from MacDill, and for us to build upon that service for everyone down here in South County," said Mike Peterson, an enthusiastic Apollo Beach resident who has seen the area grow by leaps and bounds since he moved here in 1980.
HMS Ferries Inc., supported by lawyer Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, says the plan is to operate a weekday ferry route at a terminal to be built between Apollo Beach and the Alafia River that would transport a large number of people who live in the southern part of the county and work at the military base in Tampa.
There's proof the need is there from recent surveys the company conducted with area residents. Turanchik said 85 percent surveyed at MacDill said they would like to use the service, noting that the typical commute is about 30 miles each way, but a trip across Tampa Bay is only about 6 miles.
"More and more MacDill employees are moving into South County," Turanchik said. They have long commutes, high commuter costs and their salaries have been reduced due to sequestration."
HMS has agreed to cover the operational costs, which are estimated to be about $3.5 million a year. The other costs, which could fall to the county, as well as state and federal entities, could average around $12 million. These costs would cover the entire facility, including modification of two catamarans for high-speed passenger excursions, docks, terminals, waterways, parking and trams.
Subsequently, if the project takes off and is expanded to include weekend leisure transportation, the costs would rise proportionately. HMS anticipates the first phase of the ferry project could take about two years to get off the ground.
Seffner resident Elizabeth Belcher, who has been concerned about County Commission spending in the past on private roads for companies investing in the Tampa Bay area, said she was convinced of the investment.
"I came to see what kind of finances they are talking about," said Belcher, a former state Senate candidate. "This certainly sounds better than a road to nowhere."
County Commissioner Sandy Murman showed her support by attending the event and noting that the commissioners are taking the proposal very seriously, as well as state and federal officials. Murman says she has big goals to develop the shoreline area in South County.
"I want to see it become an eco-tourism area," Murman said. "My dream is to see our parks develop in the area, particularly Schultz Park Nature Preserve. My hope is it becomes a prime location for visitors."
Murman says the county budget will be completed by the end of September, so the commission might consider the project.
"I'm trying to be fiscally conservative," Murman stressed. "Let's see how the county puts the project together where it's financially feasible."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.