TAMPA — If the long-awaited commuter ferry service between south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base ever happens, it will likely be without federal money.
Leaders of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority acknowledged Monday that project delays means they will lose a $4.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority.
To qualify, construction of the service needed to start by September 2019. But the county has yet to decide where to build a ferry terminal in South Hillsborough. The delay is partly due to federal red tape that came with the money, including a mandatory environmental impact study that would have taken up to two years.
The grant, which U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, helped secure, was announced with much fanfare in 2014. The money was awarded to HART and earmarked for construction of a launch site.
Its return has some HART officials fearing that the bus agency's reputation has been damaged.
As recently as last summer, HART and county officials told federal officials the project was still on track, said interim HART CEO Jeff Seward.
"It was made explicitly clear at that time that HART is 100 percent accountable for use and non-use of the funds and the success of the project," Seward told the HART board Monday. "No other government entity bears that burden."
Now HART will have to write to the federal agency to report that it cannot meet the deadlines. It may struggle to win future grants as a result, said HART board member Kathleen Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman and former chief of staff to former Gov. Jeb Bush.
In a comment that seemed to be directed at county commissioners who sit on HART's governing board, she said the project had been mismanaged and someone should be held accountable.
"This is embarrassing," Shanahan said. "You guys used HART to get this money and we're the ones who will get blackballed."
The ferry project began as a public-private partnership between the county, ferry operator HMS Global Maritime and South Swell Development. It would cater to about 8,000 MacDill workers who live in and around Riverview.
County commissioners who attended the HART meeting said Monday that the project will still move forward without the federal money. Commissioners in 2017 set aside $22 million from the BP oil spill settlement for the project. Under the county's agreement, it will pay capital costs, including ferry terminals and the purchase of the boats, and its partners will pay for the service's operating costs.
In February, commissioners approved spending $750,000 on a study to begin the process of creating a route.
Commissioner Pat Kemp said hanging onto the federal grant would have meant more delays.
"These dollars would have encumbered us and taken way more time," she said. "This project is still moving full steam ahead."
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS and South Swell and is running for mayor of Tampa, said the county's decision to press ahead with local funding is the best outcome for the service, which he expects to be running in about three years.
"It's on a very fast track now," he said.
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.