From time to time I find myself in various meetings with state transportation officials or proponents of Greenlight Pinellas or some other group involved in traffic issues throughout our fair hamlet, and invariably one thought keeps creeping into my head as I listen to all these grand visions for wider lanes, choo-choos chugging hither and yon, and even driverless cars eventually dominating the roadways.
As wonderful and Jetson-like as all these scenarios are, it has occurred to me that by the time any of these ideas actually comes to fruition, I will likely be dead. Except for one. If all goes according to plan, it is actually, remotely possible that by the time I am about to enter full-blown dotage, it might be possible to get from one side of Tampa Bay to the other by ferry.
A few days ago the U.S. Department of Transportation approved a $4.8 million grant for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to begin developing ferry routes connecting southern Hillsborough County, downtown Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base and downtown St. Petersburg.
The ferry has been the longtime dream of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, which replaced his longtime dream to create a mass transit system, which replaced his longtime dream to attract the Summer Olympics to Tampa Bay. This suggests that Turanchik is either a visionary or he simply sleeps a great deal.
Nevertheless, a few months ago Turanchik began promoting the idea of a ferry service. He might be the first contemporary public figure to have finally noticed there was this big body of water between Tampa and St. Petersburg that might well accommodate moving people around on a boat, instead of expanding I-275 to 36 lanes.
The total cost of getting the ferries up and sailing is estimated to be $24 million, so the federal contribution is certainly a nice chunk of startup change. Hillsborough County still needs to come up with the rest of the money and indeed, if the SS Kriseman ever actually makes it to St. Petersburg as a port of call, it's likely Pinellas County would have to kick in a few dollars to help the project along.
Since the Tampa Bay area is the last remaining major urban area in the country without a mass transit system, it also only makes perverse sense that this region would also be among the last not to take advantage of the water as a commuter platform. Other cities — New York, Seattle, Portland — all make use of ferries.
As one who spends hours a day driving on — or better yet, sitting on — I-275 to get back and forth to work, at this point I would look favorably on a giant zip-line to get across Tampa Bay if it would reduce my commute time, which is about the same exciting length as My Dinner With Andre only without the action sequences.
And here's the best news. Organizers say the ferry could be up and running by October 2016, about the same time I become eligible for Social Security. Around here, that qualifies as progress at a breakneck pace.