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Hillsborough Commission tosses life jacket to ferry plan

Hillsborough County wants to extend the current Cross Bay Ferry and will study expanding it as a south county commuter route.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January 2019. Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to try to negotiate an extension to the seasonal service that is scheduled to end this year.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January 2019. Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to try to negotiate an extension to the seasonal service that is scheduled to end this year. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 7
Updated Apr. 7

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners are keeping afloat the idea of expanding passenger ferry service among the south county, MacDill Air Force Base and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Wednesday afternoon, commissioners said Hillsborough would take the lead in negotiating a new agreement to continue the seasonal Tampa to St. Petersburg Cross Bay Ferry service that began in November 2018.

Additionally, the commission agreed to hire consultant Kimley-Horn for a $100,000 study on expanding the service to include daily commuter trips between southern Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa.

Extending the current Cross Bay service between the two cities drew dissent only from Commissioner Stacy White. He said he opposed the shared funding formula because residents of Tampa and St. Petersburg are the greatest beneficiaries.

“The two cities should have more skin in the game than the two counties,” said White.

Related: Hillsborough to resurface passenger ferry plan

The county is assuming the role as lead negotiator with private partners HMS Ferris and South Swell Development Group LLC from the city of St. Petersburg. Mayor Rick Kriseman, who leaves office in January, endorsed the change and called the inter-city ferry service “a fantastic example of collaboration” among multiple governments and the private sector.

More contentious was the Kimley-Horn study of expanding that six-month ferry into a four-boat, year-round service. Advocates see it as a low-cost transportation alternative for commuters facing daily highway congestion. The boats would provide continued St. Petersburg to Tampa service in off-peak hours.

After much discussion, only Commissioner Ken Hagan opposed the study, and he repeated his position that the South County to MacDill ferry proposal “is a house of cards.”

The approval vote reverses a 2019 commission decision that let the public-private agreement expire when commissioners punted the ferry plan to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Then, last summer, the transit authority ranked the ferry proposal as a “priority premium fixed guideway transit project” and recommended the county pursue it.

The idea has been treading water since 2014, when HMS 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, 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 in the neighborhood of $35 million to $40 million.

“To be surrounded by water and to not use water as a transit option, I think is short-sighted,” Kriseman told the commissioners.

Earlier in the day, Kim DeBosier, co-chair of the Tampa Bay Chamber’s Policy Council, also advocated for the expanded ferry service linking MacDill and southern Hillsborough.

“Connecting families in this part of Hillsborough County to both St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa, including the centers of commerce like the Water Street entertainment district, is an undeniable win for all Tampa commuters and visitors alike,” DeBosier said.

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.