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Daniel Ruth column: Anchors aweigh for ferry service on Tampa Bay

For so many naysayers, when the subject of a Tampa Bay ferry service arises, the hue and cry that politics is afoot here just might suggest the idea of schlepping people back and forth on an aquatic choo-choo could have some sea legs after all.

Three weeks ago, the St. Petersburg City Council voted to approve $350,000 be set aside as a sort of down payment on plans to develop a Tampa Bay ferry service between the city and Tampa.

The beneficiary of the money was HMS Ferries, which was the only company to meet the Dec. 18 deadline to submit a proposal to operate a six-month pilot program to test the efficacy of a ferry system stretching across Tampa Bay.

Other companies cried foul, claiming they weren't given enough time to submit their own bids for the pilot program. The grumbling noted HMS Ferries has a relationship with attorney Ed Turanchik, a long-time transit advocate, who also once served on the Hillsborough County Commission.

Now I've known Ed Turanchik for more than 20 years. And it is true the former commissioner often has had a whimsical sense of idealism when it comes to advancing the area's transit needs. But the idea that Commissioner Alllllll-Aboard was pulling the strings on the St. Petersburg City Council vote as if he were some sort of cat-stroking Blofeld of the Bounding Main would seem a leap of logic too far.

It is true Turanchik has engaged in some legalistic mumbo-jumbo peek-a-boo, claiming that while he does indeed represent HMS Ferries, when it comes to expanding ferry service across the bay between St. Petersburg and Tampa he is merely functioning as a humble "transportation policy adviser," not for HMS Ferries, but for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Strategic Property Partners LLC, which is the real estate development arm of mogul/big shot/Daddy Warbucks Jeff Vinik.

We pause here to allow our eyes to glaze over.

City officials rebuffed charges of favoritism toward HMS Ferries, noting the request-for-proposal process followed standard operating procedure, adding that a three-week window to submit bids for city projects is not unusual.

Still it's understandable how other ferry operators around the country might feel that they were dished up a steaming pile of home cooking, especially when the city declined requests to extend the deadline to submit a bid.

"I've never seen anything like it," complained Charles Donadio, owner of Rhode Island Fast Ferry to Times staffer Kathryn Varn. Obviously there is never any wink-wink/nod-nod hanky panky in the awarding of government contracts in Rhode Island.

In all probability, HMS Ferries won the pilot program bid because the company already has been a presence in the area for quite some time. HMS Ferries has been working with Hillsborough County officials and MacDill Air Force Base to develop a ferry service for military personnel. Future plans also call for extending the service throughout Tampa Bay including St. Petersburg.

Odd isn't it? For decades the Tampa Bay area has shied away from almost every attempt to enhance and extend various transportation initiatives as if they had civic cooties. And for just as long the waters of Tampa Bay have been sloshing about with precious little effort to exploit the waterway's transportation potential.

Those who lost out to HMS Ferries may have a legitimate gripe about the bidding process. Fair enough. But these very same companies have had every chance — for decades — to make a case for a ferry service. And they abandoned the ship of opportunity.

Daniel Ruth column: Anchors aweigh for ferry service on Tampa Bay 12/31/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2015 9:33am]
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