The $4.8 million federal grant for a ferry between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base is a welcome boost for a project that would utilize waterways to serve commuters. But securing the grant is only one of several conditions that county commissioners agreed must be met before they would move forward with the project. Despite the nod from the federal government, commissioners still must determine if the proposed ferry service represents a sound business decision that is a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.
The ferry proposal by HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group is backed by former county commissioner and public transportation advocate Ed Turanchik. The group approached county commissioners last year with a plan to take MacDill commuters from south county out of their cars and onto a ferry each day. Shuttle service would run every 15 minutes from Schultz Park north of Apollo Beach to MacDill. On evenings and weekends, developers say the ferries could be used between Tampa and St. Petersburg downtowns.
Developers put the cost of the ferry project at $24 million. Now, with $5.3 million in federal funds — $4.8 million from the grant announced Monday and $475,000 from the highway administration's ferry boat fund in 2008 — Hillsborough County would have to pay at least $18 million. If all goes as developers plan, construction could begin by next year and the ferries could be sailing by the fall of 2016.
Earlier this year, the county committed $125,000 to dig deeper into the project's potential merits and pitfalls. Already, a feasibility study conducted by the developers shows higher than anticipated numbers of potential commuters, reporting 7,800 MacDill employees in south county who could use the service. Those numbers are much higher than developers submitted just months ago.
Developers estimate about 1,500 of those employees would take the ferry each day, removing traffic from roadways such as U.S. 301 and Bayshore Boulevard and shrinking participants' commute times. Though impressive, those ridership figures represent only a small amount of potential south county MacDill commuters and an even smaller portion of all commuters on Hillsborough roads. Because of the ferry's limited destinations, its primary customers would be MacDill workers, leaving the larger public with little direct benefit from the service.
Finding ways to take advantage of the area's waterways and relieve congestion on roadways makes sense. And there is merit in a public-private partnership such as the one proposed by HMS Ferries to bring such transport options to fruition. But county officials should closely scrutinize the results of their feasibility study, which is expected to be completed this summer, before deciding on the next step.
The federal transportation grant is cause for excitement. But caution, not exuberance, should guide the way forward.