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Rep. Castor 'very frustrated' ferry to MacDill Air Force Base is taking so long

Passengers board the Cross Bay Ferry near the Tampa Convention Center on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Local leaders are considering adding a ferry line to connect MacDill Air Force Base to south Hillsborough County, but U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is frustrated it's taking so long. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times


Passengers board the Cross Bay Ferry near the Tampa Convention Center on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. Local leaders are considering adding a ferry line to connect MacDill Air Force Base to south Hillsborough County, but U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is frustrated it's taking so long. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

TAMPA — There would be no hard feelings if Hillsborough County decided to turn down federal money for a ferry connecting MacDill Air Force Base to south county and go it alone, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said.

Still, Castor told the Tampa Bay Times she is "very frustrated" that county leaders are only now debating the best path forward to make the ferry a reality. Castor announced the $4.8 million Federal Transit Administration grant in 2014 and the project remains in limbo three years later.

"It is frustrating to win a large federal grant and not be gung-ho at home about getting this done," Castor, D-Tampa, said.

The proposed ferry would service south and east Hillsborough residents commuting to and from MacDill Air Force Base in South Tampa. The Department of Defense is very supportive of the project, Castor said, because it will help ease travel times for base personnel.

The Hillsborough County Commission voted recently to study whether boats could get in the water faster if Hillsborough rejects the grant money and instead pays for the ferry line on its own. Unlocking the federal dollars requires extensive environmental study that county staff says takes several years.

But commissioners will have to decide if speeding up the time frame is worth sacrificing the federal aid. The project is expected to cost between $25 million and $30 million to purchase the boats and to build the south county landing dock and adjacent parking.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said the county is "diligently working" on it but it's a complicated project between the environmental concerns, including disrupting manatees, and the security questions of launching a boat to a military base.

"There are so many moving pieces to this thing," Merrill said. "I know that people are frustrated because they look at it from the outside and wonder why is it taking so long. I would probably feel the same."

Even basics about the ferry line remain up in the air. For example, officials haven't decided where boats will launch on the east side of Hillsborough Bay.

Castor said that's unacceptable on the county's part. Merrill said it's one of many delays caused by the mandatory federal study.

Like all of Hillsborough's transportation needs, the ferry was also held up by a basic question: How will the county pay for this?

County leaders spent two years weighing the question, first considering a half cent sales tax hike that would have pumped $116 million a year into transportation projects, including the ferry. But they rejected that proposal twice in 2016. If approved, voters would have had the final say in a November ballot referendum.

Commissioners ultimately voted to set aside $600 million from their existing budget over the next decade to pay for road construction, safety fixes and congestion relief. That's a much smaller pot of money and the ferry initially wasn't listed as a recipient of the funds.

Commissioners decided last week, though, to make it a priority. They could also dip into the $21 million won in the BP oil spill settlement to help pay for it.

"While it may have merit, we have limited resources and we treat it like any other project," Merrill said. "Grant or no grant, there's a local match and its competing with other projects."

If bureaucratic red tape in Washington was a problem, Castor said she could have helped.

"What I heard from the county in 2015 from the county administrator was they didn't intend to move forward unless the transportation referendum passed," Castor said. "I did not receive any request for, 'Congresswoman, will you help us speed up action at federal agencies.' "

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

Rep. Castor 'very frustrated' ferry to MacDill Air Force Base is taking so long 02/09/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 8:30pm]
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[The New York Times file photo]