Hillsborough commissioners dove into the commuter ferry business Wednesday unfazed the projected public investment could reach $54 million before the first boat sails between South County and MacDill Air Force Base in 2025.
On a 6-1 vote, commissioners authorized a new four-year agreement with private companies HMS Ferries and South Swell Development to continue the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry from Tampa to St. Petersburg, expanding to a year-round service in 2024. Additionally, the county allocated $1 million to continue planning the commuter ferry.
The vote came after a report from consultant Kimley-Horn estimated the public cost could reach $54 million by 2024, plus $5.2 million in long-term capital improvements and $150,000 annually for county oversight. The county also would need to include more than $2 million in its 2022-23 budget for planning and development.
Earlier projections put the public cost to procure the boats and build the terminals in South County and at MacDill at $35 million to $40 million. The growing cost was attributed to building a larger parking lot, extending water and sewer service to the site, updated vehicle expenses, a calculated 4 percent inflation rate and other price increases.
Under the proposal, the county would foot the cost of the ferries and the ground transportation vehicles — possibly buses or trams — at MacDill Air Force. HMS would operate the service and maintain the vessels and vehicles at a projected expense of $175 million over 20 years. South Swell would do the due diligence, design, permitting and construction of the terminals.
If the plan comes to fruition, three ferries would make four round trips each morning and again each afternoon to deliver enlisted military and civilian employees between the base in south Tampa and southern Hillsborough. During off peak times and weekends, the ferries would run between downtown and South County.
Over the past week, the Tampa Bay Chamber, the Downtown Tampa Partnership and four other chambers of commerce announced their support for the commuter ferry service. Advocates see it as a way to reduce road congestion, improve the environment and boost businesses.
On Wednesday, Commissioner Ken Hagan was the lone dissenter.
“In my opinion, this is a colossal waste of money for a very minimal ridership,” said Hagan who said the public would be better served if the money was allocated for road improvements or expanding other transportation options.
But, Commissioner Mariella Smith, who lives in Ruskin, noted the county recently allocated $70 million for a two-mile expansion of Van Dyke Road and called the ferry a low-cost option.
“If we can’t hope to pave our way out of gridlock and our traffic problems we must add to our transportation system options,” she said,
Commissioners said state and federal grants are a potential way to offset the county’s expense. Commissioner Gwen Myers, however, sought a second motion to tie the ferry service to the planned transportation sales tax referendum on the 2022 ballot.
“I’m not trying to kill the project,” Myers said. “I’m trying to make sure our citizens know where we’re going to get the $54 million from.”
Her motion, supported by Hagan and Commissioner Stacy White, failed 4-3 with other commissioners calling it premature.
Besides the due diligence work by South Swell, the county is required by state law to do a separate financial analysis by a third-party consultant. That is expected to be presented to the commission next year before they commit funding in 2022-23.
The Hillsborough vote came on the heels of Pinellas County commissioners approving the new contract for inter-city ferry service between Tampa and St. Petersburg on Tuesday. The cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg already have signed off on the new agreement.
Some Pinellas commissioners expressed doubts about the partnership’s benefit to the county as a whole, rather than the city of St. Petersburg, and noted hesitancy to put taxpayer dollars into a ferry that didn’t serve commuters.
“This is still not transit, this is entertainment,” Commissioner Kathleen Peters said.
But Commissioner Karen Seel said the commission has put tax dollars toward transportation in the past for the purpose of entertainment.
“I believe the general fund has supported the (Clearwater) Jolley Trolley going to Dunedin and Safety Harbor that’s been for entertainment reasons,” said Seel. “It keeps people from drinking and driving, (and) this ferry may be keeping people from drinking and driving across the Howard Frankland Bridge.”
Commissioners approved the contract on a 5-2 vote and can opt out June 1. Peters and Commission Chairman Dave Eggers dissented.
Times staff writer Lauren Peace contributed to this report.