Real estate agent Joe Eletto, a 31-year resident of South Hillsborough County, is familiar with the time-consuming drive to MacDill Air Force Base.
Eletto periodically made the trip from his Apollo Beach home to the base in South Tampa when he served as an honorary commander — a volunteer liaison between military squadrons at MacDill and the public.
It’s an hour drive on a typical day, he said, but the one-way trip sometimes stretched to 90 minutes. He had his choice of routes to get out of south county: Interstate 75; U.S. 301 or U.S. 41, but “all of ‘em, in the morning, are pretty heavily congested.”
Florida Department of Transportation data shows why. More than 230,000 vehicles crowd those three north-south routes each day in one of Tampa Bay’s fastest-growing areas.
Yet the coming week is expected to bring an end to what could be considered an almost quixotic quest — using the seas to get people off the roads.
On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Commission is scheduled to consider sinking a proposal debated for a decade — allowing a private company to run ferry boats from the western terminus of Big Bend Road to MacDill.
The expected demise leaves unanswered a key question: Now what? Because there are few concrete plans on the horizon to ease commuters’ slog.
Eletto, 76, is also an officer with the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County Inc., a nonprofit made up of more than 60 veteran service organizations, like Veterans of Foreign Wars and AMVETS. One of its missions is to improve the quality of life for military personnel.
A way to do that, he said, is to move forward with a ferry that could save military personnel money and perhaps as much as 30 minutes on a one-way trip.
“If we can give them back an hour a day, that adds up pretty quickly to some pretty good time with the family,” he said.
But that appears unlikely.
The proposal called for the county to pay upfront costs to build a terminal and buy boats and ground transportation vehicles, though advocates say federal and state grants could cover up to four-fifths of the expense. The private company HMS Ferries would then run the boats and assume all operating costs, projected to be as high as $175 million, spread over a 20-year agreement.
The ferry plan faced rough water over the years, then gained significant support on what was formerly a Democratic-controlled commission. But the projected costs kept escalating until the most recent figures translated to a $76 million upfront public investment to provide rush-hour rides for 3,000 people.
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Commission chairperson Ken Hagan has been a leading critic, repeatedly calling the ferry proposal a boondoggle. The November 2022 election, when voters turned down a sales tax for transportation and picked three Republicans to join Hagan on a GOP-majority commission, sealed the ferry’s fate. In post-election interviews, newly elected Commissioner Josh Wostal called the ferry “a fairy tale” and Commissioner Michael Owen cast doubts on its viability, saying he didn’t think it would remove enough cars.
They haven’t changed their minds.
“The ferry simply doesn’t move a reasonable amount of bodies,” Wostal said in a recent interview, calling the plan “an imagined project that seems unrealistic at this point.”
Recent projections called for three ferry vessels to carry a maximum of 2,942 people on 13 daily round trips during peak travel hours. An additional 745 people would be on board during five off-peak trips each day.
Skeptics say it’s too much money and too big of a gamble for the county with too little return.
“The commissioners deeply want relief for traffic congestion, but what we can’t have, and what is our equal responsibility, is to make sure taxpayers aren’t taken advantage of,” said Wostal.
He has ambitions to curb county spending on nonprofits and steer the money into transportation. The county is allocating $14.5 million to 98 such groups this budget year — an amount not likely to make a dent in the county’s transportation wish list.
Wostal also said he will advocate for the county to turn over ownership of its roads inside the city of Tampa to the municipal government after the roads are improved. It’s an idea that’s been discussed previously but has not advanced.
Owen, whose district includes south county, recently proposed extending the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway from its terminus in Brandon 10 miles southward to Big Bend Road in south county. That could be 20 years away.
Even without the cost of the ferry, the county’s transportation needs abound. Commissioners learned Tuesday of a projected $1.57 billion five-year shortfall. It translates to too little money to build and repave roads, fix sidewalks and bridges, repair intersections and make crosswalks near schools safer. The deficit includes a $32 million hole in funding to finish widening Big Bend Road.
More financial help doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon. Voters turned down the referendum that would have added a 1% sales tax for transportation, and it can’t be resurrected until later this decade. Likewise, the half-cent community investment sales tax expires at the end of 2026. Commissioners indicated this week they may ask voters to renew the 30-year tax next year.
Ferry supporters like Eletto point to the audience it would benefit — a portion of the more than 30,000 active military personnel and civilians employed at MacDill who produce an annual economic impact of more than $3.9 billion.
And more motorists are coming as south county farms transform into suburban neighborhoods on the county’s outskirts. Commissioners just greenlighted 1,800 homes in Wimauma, and according to the Wimauma Community Development Corp., that vicinity still has 4,000 acres that can be developed.
“They’re getting ready to throw overboard all of south county, MacDill and thousands of military families,” said Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner who consults for South Swell Development, the company charged with obtaining permits and building the ferry terminal if the project proceeds. “They’re going to leave the whole region stuck in gridlock with no solutions. I feel so bad for everyone that lives there.”
Turanchik, who said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of South Swell nor HMS Ferries, first proposed the MacDill ferry route more than a decade ago.
“They have got no solutions. There is nothing that they are planning that takes trips off the road. Their lack of understanding of transportation fundamentals was astounding,” he said.
Taking 3,000 vehicles off the road during rush hour is the equivalent of building an extra road lane — which can handle a maximum of 2,200 cars per hour — for the 25-mile route from south county to MacDill, according to South Swell. The ferry is significantly cheaper than road construction, the company said.
Turanchik’s comments came after the July 12 commission meeting, when the board voted 5-2 to begin the process of ending a $3.7 million feasibility and design study for the ferry. A second vote is scheduled for Wednesday.
HMS Ferries, which also operates the seasonal Tampa-to-St. Petersburg ferry service, offered a more diplomatic response.
“While (the July 12) vote was not the outcome we expected, we understand the commissioners’ positions and will continue to work with the commission, county staff, our other government partners, and the people of Tampa Bay to deliver a sustainable, reliable, and convenient regional ferry network that provides congestion relief for decades to come,” the company said in a statement.
Tanya Doran, CEO and president of the recently formed nonprofit Tampa Bay Ferries Alliance, also called the commission vote disappointing.
“This is the only plan that really reduces the traffic congestion that can be utilized in the next few years,” she said. “The County Commission, let’s face it, they have the votes. They’re turning their backs on south Hillsborough County.”
BP oil settlement
Democratic Commissioner Gwen Myers, a previous ferry advocate, joined the GOP majority in voting to begin shutting down the project.
“When the 1% sales tax was voted down by the taxpayers, this project went down with it,” Myers said. “The county doesn’t have the funding.”
Turanchik pointed out the county socked away $22 million for the ferry in 2017, using the BP oil spill settlement. That money disappeared two years later, however, when commissioners spent it on other items.
The county and state do have some ongoing road construction projects intended to aid south county motorists. The work includes a $60 million widening of portions of Big Bend Road from four to six lanes and the $81 million rebuild of the I-75 interchange at Big Bend Road.
Wostal said he hoped one long-term solution might be to turn County Road 39, a 25-mile-long road connecting Manatee County to Plant City, over to the state of Florida so it could be used as a major north-south transportation corridor. That would remove some vehicles from I-75 and link eastern Hillsborough County to Interstate 4, he said.
But is there any immediate hope for relief for traffic-choked south county?
“If there is,” said Wostal, “it hasn’t been presented to me.”