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Hillsborough to resurface passenger ferry plan

The proposed service would link Gibsonton to the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin, Friday, January 11, 2019 with passengers headed to Tampa's Channleside area near the Florida Aquarium.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin, Friday, January 11, 2019 with passengers headed to Tampa's Channleside area near the Florida Aquarium. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jan. 19

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission is poised to throw a lifeline to a proposed passenger ferry service linking south county to South Tampa.

Commission Chair Pat Kemp will ask the rest of the board on Thursday to resurface a prior agreement with private companies HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group considering a commuter ferry between Gibsonton and MacDill Air Force Base.

Reinstating the expired contract would require a second commission vote in the future. If approved, it would allow the county and private partners to assess a proposed site for the south county terminal on land offered by Mosaic Fertilizer at its Big Bend marine terminal.

The ferry “had a number of false starts on the County Commission and became somewhat of a political football, but we’re happy to see it get back on track,” said Ed Turanchik, an HMS representative and a former county commissioner.

If approved, Kemp’s motion would reverse a 2019 decision that let the public-private agreement expire when commissioners punted the ferry plan to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Related: Transportation agency that runs Hillsborough's buses will also run its ferries.

Still, two of the commissioners on the four-person majority then, Les Miller Jr. and Sandy Murman, are no longer in office.

“Obviously, I’m interested in the details,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen who succeeded Murman representing the district where the terminals could be located. “But the concept itself is something that I’ve been interested in hearing about. I’m very, not just open-minded, but excited about the idea.”

Four months ago, the transit authority ranked the ferry proposal as a “priority premium fixed guideway transit project” and recommended the county pursue it, according to a memo to commissioners.

Treading water since 2014, the idea is envisioned as an expansion of the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry — which connects downtown St. Pete and Tampa with a 50-minute boat ride — into a four-boat, year-round service.

Advocates say it as a low-cost way to move 8,000 passengers between southern Hillsborough and their employment at MacDill each day, helping to remove commuters from traffic-choked highways.

“It’s a cheap way to provide transit, You don’t have to build roads,” said Kemp. “For south county, I can tell you, they have been desperate to move people. Development has just been thrown down there and piled on to a point of absolute gridlock.”

Skeptics, however, fear exorbitant up-front expenses for the county. Commissioner Ken Hagan previously characterized the proposal as a “house of cards’' because of prior increases in cost projections.

HMS has pledged to assume operating and maintenance costs for the passenger ferries, which is estimated to be $100 million over a 20-year term. But the county would have to buy or build the boats and docks, projected to cost $36 million.

The proposed site of the eastern ferry terminal, known as the Mosaic Big Bend site, for the proposed Cross-Bay Ferry expansion linking southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base.
The proposed site of the eastern ferry terminal, known as the Mosaic Big Bend site, for the proposed Cross-Bay Ferry expansion linking southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base. [ Hillsborough County ]

That’s still a bargain considering the cost of building roads, said Turanchik.

“Every other transit option our region has starts with the question of who is going to pay to operate it, and this is the exception. This is a pretty extraordinary project,” he said.

Still to be determined is the county’s funding source. The county initially set aside $22 million to pay for the ferry project through money obtained from the BP oil spill settlement, but the commission reversed course in 2019 and spent that money elsewhere. A voter-approved sales tax increase for transportation remains in limbo until the Florida Supreme Court rules on a legal challenge to the measure.

Resurrecting the ferry proposal won’t bring immediate service. Both Kemp and Turanchik said, even if all goes according to plan, it would be three years before boats started running between MacDill and south county.