TAMPA — In the waning days of the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot program, Hillsborough County laid the groundwork Wednesday to make water transportation a permanent fixture in the Tampa Bay region.
Commissioners voted to keep in reserve $22 million from the BP oil spill settlement with the hope it could one day go toward expanded ferry service, including a route between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg.
However, commissioners also said getting there will require re-imagining a project that has stalled for years due to federal red tape, environmental concerns and lack of funding.
"For this project to materialize, to be successful, it must involve a public-private partnership," County Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "The challenge in my mind is determining the best model."
For several years, Hillsborough County has had a standing, short-term agreement with two companies, HMS Ferries and South Swell, to someday open a commuter ferry line between south county and MacDill Air Force Base. Under that pact, the county would pay for the capital costs, and the companies would cover operating expenses.
On Wednesday, commissioners asked staffers to renegotiate that arrangement into a long-term deal of up to 20 years. In a new deal, the county also would like to see HMS Ferries and South Swell take on all the risk — and potential financial reward — of the entire project. In return, the county would write the companies a check, though it's not clear for how much. The project was estimated to cost the county $25 million to $30 million.
"This would mean likely paying more up front but in doing so we can achieve a long-term agreement for 15 or 20 years," Hagan said, "and we will not be responsible for all of the other issues associated with this project."
Additionally, commissioners want a new deal to guarantee service from south county to Tampa as well as a route between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The current agreement says market demand would dictate whether those routes are offered. Many area leaders and ferry advocates believe that demand was demonstrated by the six-month ferry pilot program linking downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa that is scheduled to end April 30.
The Cross-Bay Ferry sold nearly 8,000 tickets in March, according to numbers released Wednesday, bringing total ridership to 31,362 since the service launched in October.
"It is amazing," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "The ferry, I think, has passed the test. We know there is strong demand for water transit."
Still, much remains up in the air. The county has set aside $750,000 for a study of the project that will, among other things, determine a viable launch site in south county. The Schultz Preserve is one potential location.
Tampa and St. Petersburg would have to agree to the terms of any deal that services their cities, and they would also likely have to contribute to the project. Hillsborough, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and Tampa each put in $750,000 to the pilot program but it's not clear that kind of rare regional cooperation could be replicated to support a more ambitious expansion.
Even if they received the go-ahead tomorrow, it will take three years before the boats are operating full time, said Ed Turanchik, who represents the two private companies.
There's not yet full support for the ferry in Hillsborough, either. Commissioner Les Miller, a persistent skeptic of the project, said the BP money was given to Hillsborough out of an environmental disaster and a ferry doesn't fit the spirit of the award.
"The vast majority," Miller said, "should go into our conservation and environmental lands."
But he may be outnumbered.
"I consider it a transformative project," Commissioner Pat Kemp said, "and well worthy of anything we could put forward in terms of our BP oil resources."
Contact Steve Contorno at email@example.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.