TAMPA — A proposed high-speed ferry that would link MacDill Air Force Base to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg got a boost Monday with the news of a $4.8 million federal grant.
But don't start booking those boat rides just yet. Hillsborough County officials said a lot is still unknown about the public-private ferry, which would launch from Gibsonton in southern Hillsborough and primarily service MacDill employees who live in that area.
The grant, announced Monday in a news release by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, was part of $123.5 million the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded ferry projects across the country.
"Tampa Bay's long-term economic future will significantly benefit if we develop options for people to travel to work and home," Castor said. "Investing in our infrastructure is key to growing jobs in our community and remaining competitive."
One of the many uncertainties giving county officials pause is the ferry's startup price tag. Castor's press release said $17 million. But Ed Turanchik, a lawyer and former county commissioner representing the companies who would run the ferry, told commissioners in February the cost was $24 million.
Hillsborough government would cover most of that, including paying for boats and docks. HMS Ferries Inc., one of the companies behind the proposal, would cover operating costs for the ferry.
The grant "validates the strength of this project," said Turanchik, a longtime advocate of public transit.
"We just went on a national competition," he said. "And even though we have many miles to go, we won."
In February, county commissioners approved spending $125,000 to study the ferry's feasibility. That study is still ongoing, although Turanchik said he feels the argument for the ferry's value has improved since February.
There are 7,800 MacDill employees living in southern Hillsborough who could use the ferry, Turanchik said, up from an initial estimate of 5,300. Boats holding at least 150 passengers could get base employees to MacDill in about 15 minutes from Gibsonton, a commute that normally takes 60 to 90 minutes by car.
While routes linking Tampa and St. Petersburg appeal to a wider ridership, that service would be secondary to the Gibsonton-to-MacDill routes. Turanchik's clients are confident ridership exists to pay for the MacDill service, while the city routes may require corporate sponsorship.
Exact locations of where the boats would land are still under discussion, Turanchik said. Schultz Park in the Gibsonton area is the proposed spot for the main terminal, where the boats would be stored and where parking is needed. That land is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, and Turanchik's clients are discussing a land swap with the public agency.
There is also a potential environmental concern. The water near Gibsonton is heavily populated by manatees, which are protected under federal and state law. Turanchik said manatee safety will not be a problem, as the ferries will run at slower speeds where the mammals are known to congregate.
With so much still uncertain, Hillsborough Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe said Monday he's still cautiously optimistic about the ferry's prospects.
"There are a lot of issues involved, and this is a really complex piece," Sharpe said.
Turanchik hopes to have the ferry running by October 2016, but acknowledges much work remains.
"The stars will have to align," he said.
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.