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High-speed ferry delays fuel funding fight between Hillsborough County, project developers

TAMPA — A proposed high-speed ferry that would connect south Hillsborough County with MacDill Air Force Base faces new delays that could push the project's timeline into the next decade.

Those delays also have generated a rift over how to fund the ferry between public officials and the private business interests behind the project.

The ferry's backers — who want to serve MacDill personnel who live in south Hillsborough and work on base — hoped it would be operational by the end of 2018. But requirements to unlock a $4.8 million U.S. Department of Transportation grant for the project will take longer to fulfill than first expected.

Now, Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner and lawyer representing the two companies behind the proposal, doesn't expect ferries to start transporting people until 2021.

"It's discouraging," Turanchik said. "It's been one big step backward and no steps forward."

County officials confirmed that the complicated timeline for the project changed within the last few weeks. They hoped an environmental and site study required by the federal government could be completed in 12 to 18 months. However, federal regulators recently informed local officials that those studies typically take 18 months to two years.

The county received $475,000 from the federal government to complete that study.

After the site review, there's a permitting phase that can take anywhere from one to two years. And then, construction of the docks and the boats would add another year.

A best-case scenario would have the project completed in 2019. But now, some say it could take until 2021.

The bureaucratic hurdles tied to the federal money are causing too many delays, Turanchik said, and he wonders if the county should forgo the federal grant and instead pay for the entire project with local funds.

"It's nice to have it," he said, "but if it results in the project increasing in costs or if economic and time losses far exceed the value of the federal contribution, you really start asking the question whether it's worth the effort.

"This is not our call, but it's almost getting to the point of saying, 'Thank you, but no thank you.' "

The county, which is already responsible for the $24 million needed to construct the docks and parking lots and buy the ferry boats, shot down any talk of forgoing federal funding.

"It might slow the process down, but it's a big expensive project that we need federal money to make work," said Mike Williams, who manages engineering and construction services for Hillsborough County.

"It's worth jumping through those hoops to get the money."

Turanchik said ferries could be up and running in 2½ years if all the funding was local.

Williams disputed that. For security purposes, the Department of Defense would expect a much more thorough review for any route that includes MacDill, he said.

Once the project is launched, HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Group LLC would be in charge of operating expenses. There's another reason why the federally mandated review concerns ferry investors. They had identified Schultz Park in the Gibsonton area as the proposed spot for the main south Hillsborough terminal.

However, by law, the site review cannot give preference to one location, and any tentative arrangements to make a Schultz Park terminal were halted.

Some environmentalists have raised concern about the Schultz spot because its on sensitive land and federally protected manatees populate that area. It's also possible that the environmental study would find that site — and, for that matter, the three other sites being considered — unworkable.

The federal funding isn't the only piece where ferry backers and the county are at odds. There's also debate over how the county would pay for its share.

A high-speed ferry is included in the package of projects that could be funded by Go Hillsborough, the proposed sales tax increase to fund transportation that will go to a referendum in 2016. If county voters reject the referendum, however, the future of the ferry would become even more uncertain.

Turanchik contends that the ferry proposal is a popular project that preceded Go Hillsborough, so the project shouldn't be dependent on what the electorate decides in 2016.

But Hillsborough commissioners aren't ready to give the project priority over other transportation needs if Go Hillsborough doesn't pass next year.

"If we don't have the amount of money we need for the ferry project, we'll have to look at scaling it back to one boat or a pilot program," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "But I don't think it's appropriate to speculate on that right now because we just don't have the information.

"I just want to keep moving forward to get it going."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow at @scontorno.

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