BRANDON — For six years, Hillsborough County commissioners have argued about whether to launch a passenger ferry service for military and civilians at MacDill Air Force Base.
One of the biggest hurdles: Finding a site in southern Hillsborough for a ferry terminal.
But this week, commissioners and County Administrator Mike Merrill confirmed the tides have unexpectedly turned in the project's favor.
Mosaic Fertilizer has offered to donate a portion of its Big Bend Marine Terminal site to the county at "little to no cost" for a Gibsonton-based ferry terminal.
In a letter sent to Merrill on Tuesday, the fertilizer and phosphate mining giant said it has earmarked a portion of land for the project in the southwest corner of its Big Bend plant, which receives, warehouses and ships out finished fertilizer products.
The site, located just south of Port Redwing and west of U.S. 41, already has the waterfront land needed to build the parking and docking structures for a ferry terminal, as well as access to Big Bend Road, the area's main thoroughfare, the letter said.
"Putting this ferry service in southeast County has really been a big struggle, and I'm thrilled that Mosaic has stepped up to the plate," Commissioner Pat Kemp told a crowd of about 50 during a Brandon town hall meeting Thursday evening.
A ferry could transport four busloads of passengers from the Big Bend terminal to MacDill in 13 to 15 minutes, Kemp said. That compares to a 90-minute drive from that same location during morning rush hour, a study by the Metropolitan Planning Organization found.
During peak commuting times, a team of three ferries would be able to pick up a new load of passengers every 15 minutes, Kemp said.
On weekends, the ferry would be open to the public, offering trips to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg.
The proposed Mosaic site wasn't on the commission's short list of three potential terminal locations, all in environmentally sensitive areas.
Building a terminal at Williams Park some five miles north of the Mosaic site would have required building a new parking garage in the popular county park and boat dock and buying additional land from Mosaic.
The company didn't want to sell.
A second option was the Fred and Idah Schultz Nature Preserve but its owner, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, was asking for $12.5 million and a land swap, the county said. The third option, off Kracker Road, was located between two nature preserves and was deemed too environmentally sensitive.
Even if the Mosaic offer works out, the $36 million project is a long way from setting sail. The county still has to conduct environmental studies on the site before a new ferry terminal can be built so close to Tampa Bay.
And it's still unclear if the project has won a majority of the county commission. At its next meeting on August 7, the board is set to vote on extending its contract negotiations with the project's private partners until the end of September.
Kemp and two other Democrats, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith, are big supporters of a service they say can help alleviate South Hillsborough's traffic woes by taking more cars off the road.
"I'm really, really optimistic that now we'll be able to bring this to fruition soon," Smith said.
But Commission Chairman Les Miller, the fourth Democrat on the board, said Mosaic's offer doesn't change his opposition to the project. He worries the U.S. Department of Defense will not grant security clearance for the ferries to dock at MacDill and the project will prove too expensive.
"How can we spend that much money on a project that doesn't benefit the entire county?" he said.
The three Republicans on the commission — Ken Hagan, Stacy White and Sandy Murman —– have also expressed doubts about the project's viability.
It is planned as a public-private partnership between the county, ferry company HMS Global Maritime and the South Swell development group. HMS has pledged to assume the operating and maintenance costs — an estimated $100 million for a 20-year term.
But the county, or the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, would have to buy or build the boats.
In her presentation on Thursday, Kemp estimated the project would cost $23.1 million for ferry vessels and trams and $15.2 million for the terminals, parking, docks and waterway improvements.
One potential funding source would be the countywide transit sales tax voters approved in 2018. That tax is currently being collected, but a lawsuit over its legality is headed to the Florida Supreme Court. The project is also eligible for FDOT matching transit funds.
The ferries are intended to provide a low-cost, fast and congestion-proof commuter service for about 8,000 MacDill Air Force Base employees who live in south county.
A daily pass would be $15 or riders can purchase a monthly pass for $260. That includes parking and the cost of a tram at MacDill, and can be paid for with transit vouchers. For weekend intercity trips, daily tickets would cost $8 per trip, $3 for kids ages 5 to 18 and free for children under 4. College students, seniors and military veterans could by discounted day tickets for $5.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.