Hillsborough County made the right decision to study whether a ferry service makes sense. Moving thousands of people by ferry between the south of the county and MacDill Air Force Base, and eventually to and from Tampa and St. Petersburg, might be a practical transportation option that merits a public subsidy. But county commissioners need to vet the ridership and operating numbers and figure out where a ferry fits in the region's transportation mix.
Hillsborough County commissioners agreed to explore a proposal by private operator HMS Ferries to provide service between south county and MacDill. Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik, who represents the company, estimates that 1,000 or more residents who live in the area and work at MacDill would take a shuttle to the south Tampa air base, avoiding a long and costly commute and easing congestion on the roads. The proposal calls for the county to provide up to $24 million for boats, trams, docking facilities and parking. HMS would guarantee all operating costs in the first three years of what is envisioned as an initial five-year deal.
The contract commissioners approved this month includes a stepped approach that doesn't obligate the county immediately to subsidize the ferry service. But with each passing hurdle, it will be easier for commissioners to feel pressured to ultimately sign a deal. That's why it's critical at the outset to verify the numbers and establish the county's exposure. Commissioners did a poor job at the board meeting this month of laying out the right expectations. The county needs a better idea of how the public would benefit, and a better plan for using the ferry to build a robust, regional transit option.
The first question is ridership: How many would regularly use the service? What impact would that have on roads whose traffic counts exceed tens of thousands of cars per day? While HMS would cover the operating costs for the first three years, what is the county prepared to pay in additional subsidies during the outlying years of operation? Would the city of St. Petersburg provide docking to serve general public traffic between both sides of Tampa Bay?
The venture also raises policy implications: Would the service create transit capacity where it is needed, or merely be convenient for a select group? What would that money buy in other transit projects? How would the service impact growth in south county? Is the city of Tampa prepared to stoke the commuter and tourism potential by accommodating the ferry downtown? And does this arrangement with HMS serve as a good model for future public-private ventures?
The contract calls for many of these details to be sorted through in later phases. But the proposal is moving quickly; within the next several months, the county could face spending an additional $500,000 to explore the project. Commissioners need to ensure they don't head down a slippery slope and become unable to stop. If the ferry makes sense, the vetting process will provide a compelling case. The task now is to ask the right questions and to think through how a ferry would be not just a novelty but a worthwhile part of a modern transportation system.