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Hillsborough ferry plans sail ahead of schedule

Survey finds 90% of MacDill workers in south county would use the proposed commuter service.
The Cross Bay Ferry Provincetown III is shown carrying passengers headed from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 2019. Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners will be asked to accelerate the planning work for service to southern Hillsborough.   [Times 2019]
The Cross Bay Ferry Provincetown III is shown carrying passengers headed from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 2019. Wednesday, Hillsborough commissioners will be asked to accelerate the planning work for service to southern Hillsborough. [Times 2019]
Published Aug. 15|Updated Aug. 15

Plans for the south Hillsborough County ferry service are ahead of schedule, and commissioners are being asked to continue the full-speed-ahead pace.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners will consider $252,000 for preliminary engineering and planning work for the proposed ferry between south Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base. Without the additional money, the work would cease until Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

If commissioners approve, HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Group LLC can accelerate environmental permit applications and an analysis of off-site transportation requirements for the proposed terminal on land owned by Mosaic Co., according to a memo to commissioners by Assistant County Administrator Thomas Fass.

“The whole thing is moving at a faster pace than was anticipated, so they just want to speed up the dollars. It’s going along robustly,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp.

The net cost to the county does not increase since the $252,000 would have been available in next year’s budget. The county had set aside $1 million in the current fiscal year, and the multiyear planning and design costs are listed at $3.7 million through 2024.

The ferry is envisioned as a way to reduce traffic congestion between southern Hillsborough and Tampa. The project calls for HMS and South Swell to operate the ferry boats at an estimated cost of $100 million over 20 years with the county absorbing the expense of buying the vessels and building a terminal and dock.

Consultant Kimley-Horn previously 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.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said his opposition to the project would continue.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s just not financially prudent.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a nearly $4.9 million grant to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority for a new 350-passenger vessel.

This map by Kimley-Horn show the route of the Cross Bay Ferry that currently provides seasonal transportation between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The proposed expansion would transport commuters between southern Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base.
This map by Kimley-Horn show the route of the Cross Bay Ferry that currently provides seasonal transportation between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The proposed expansion would transport commuters between southern Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base. [ Hillsborough County ]

The seasonal ferry service between Tampa and St. Petersburg operates a leased boat capable of carrying 149 passengers. The seasonal service is scheduled to return in October after overcoming a funding hiccup when Pinellas County opted out of paying a full subsidy share. A state grant will make up the difference.

Kimley-Horn also is scheduled to present a status report to commissioners. Included in the briefing are the results of a survey of 1,100 MacDill Air Force Base workers who live in southern Hillsborough. The survey found:

  • 94% of respondents said they commute by car.
  • 85% have commutes greater than 40 minutes.
  • 50% of those people said they have commutes longer than 50 minutes.
  • 90% said they would “definitely” use the ferry, assuming fare is covered by federal transit voucher.
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A proposed terminal could include a 5,000-square-foot building with a great room including vendor space, a ticket office, restrooms and 3,500 square feet in an outdoor covered patio.

The projected timeline calls for the new 350-passenger vessel starting service between Tampa and St. Petersburg in March 2024 and completing construction of the South County terminal in April 2025 to begin South County-to-Tampa and St. Petersburg service. The timeline calls for completion of MacDill terminal and the start of the commuter service there in June 2025.

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