The proposal for a high-speed ferry that eventually might give commuters and tourists in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties another way to cross the bay is an intriguing idea that officials on both sides should seriously explore. The concept that a potential operator unveiled last week leaves many questions unanswered about whether the costs to the public would outweigh the benefits. But it's worth investing time to see if the idea makes sense.
The route would initially carry military service and civilian employees from between their homes in south Hillsborough and south Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base. About 5,000 employees assigned to MacDill live in that area, and Ed Turanchik, the Tampa attorney who put together the proposal, estimates that 1,000 or more would take advantage of a ferry to MacDill that could cut their commute times and the costs of traveling by car. If demand takes off, service could be expanded to the general public, either to and from special events in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg or as regularly scheduled cross-the-bay commuter service.
The major questions are the cost and the fairness of having taxpayers finance the major terminal facilities that would allow a private company to operate the ferry. Under the plan, the public sector would buy the boats and build the docks and parking areas needed for the ferries. Those capital costs could reach up to $22 million for the first three years. Turanchik's group is also looking at publicly owned land as a potential site for the south county terminal. There are environmental issues with at least one south terminal under consideration, and other concerns about operating in the shallow inland waters. And whatever road capacity the ferry might free up, users still would need to travel up to 15 miles to reach the terminal building.
Officials also need to address whether this project is narrowly tailored to MacDill or serves a broader public interest. The capital costs, after all, are required for the start-up service to the base, and any expansion to downtown Tampa or St. Petersburg could take years. St. Petersburg might also be on the hook for needed improvements at the Vinoy basin to accommodate the vessels. Is it appropriate for state and local taxpayers to finance a waterborne military shuttle? And in this tight budget environment, is there the ability or willingness to commit federal dollars for at least a portion of the costs?
The proposal is so new that none of these questions need to be deal-killers. Tampa and St. Petersburg are investing in their already attractive and popular waterfronts, so any decision also needs to consider what works for the future. Officials should forget about the wow factor and focus on specifics: What is the ferry's business model? Where does it fit as a transit option? What's the likelihood and timetable for serving the general public? And what's the appropriate level of tax support for any partnership with a private operator? But this proposal is worth studying, and officials should keep an open mind as the discussion begins.