A push for a commuter ferry service connecting southern Hillsborough to MacDill Air Force Base picked up widespread support from the business community Thursday.
The Tampa Bay, South Tampa and Greater Riverview chambers of commerce announced joint support for the proposed service that is still in the planning stages. Combined, the three chambers represent more than 2,700 members.
“It’s essential that we identify alternative transportation options, in a cost-effective manner, to support personnel commuting to base, but also to address congestion relief on thoroughfares in and out of the base,” Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Chamber, said in a statement.
The Hillsborough County Commission agreed earlier this year to hire consultant Kimley-Horn for a $100,000 study of the plan. The proposed 2022 county budget, to be voted on next week, includes $1 million earmarked for continued design and engineering work.
“I’m thrilled,” Hillsborough Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp said about the chambers’ endorsement.
She characterized the proposed ferry as “low-hanging fruit” in addressing the area’s transportation needs.
“We have this gift of water. It’s the lowest-cost transit system you can possibly have to move people,” Kemp said.
The proposal has been treading water since 2014 when HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group made an unsolicited proposal to operate the ferry. The companies pledged to assume operating and maintenance costs for the passenger ferries, estimated at $100 million over a 20-year term. The county would have to buy or build the boats and docks, projected to cost in the neighborhood of $35 million to $40 million.
The proposed site for the south county terminal is on land offered by Mosaic Fertilizer at its Big Bend marine terminal in Gibsonton. The county has not identified a funding source for the capital costs.
Advocates see the service 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. The leading critic on the commission has been Commissioner Ken Hagan who has labeled the proposal a “house of cards” because of varying cost estimates.
The chambers said improved transportation is a key way to support MacDill, one of the top five local employers in Hillsborough County and home base to more than 15,000 active-duty personnel, reservists and civilian employees.
Separately, HMS operates the seasonal Cross Bay ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg, which returns Nov. 1. Under a new four-year contract, HMS will provide year-round service beginning Oct. 1, 2024.