1. Opinion

Editorial: Sink this bad Tampa Bay ferry plan

The latest plan for a regularly scheduled Tampa Bay ferry is a higher priced version of the same bad idea. Using ferries to relieve highway congestion is a reasonable concept, but this proposal serves a small passenger base. It does little for commuters at great public cost, effectively using tax money to subsidize private business. Hillsborough County commissioners should want fundamental changes when they take up the issue this week.

The proposal unveiled this month by HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Corp. caps nearly seven years of effort to create regular ferry service in the Tampa Bay area. Under the proposal, the companies would run three boats during the weekday morning and evening rush hours between south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. On weeknights and weekends, two boats would circulate between south Hillsborough, downtown Tampa and the St. Petersburg waterfront. Operators could add another boat if ridership spiked or to accommodate special events. Service would start in 2022.

Under the deal, Hillsborough would pay an estimated $36.1 million in capital costs for the ferry stations, four vessels (one would be kept in reserve) and for the trams at MacDill that would carry base employees to their jobs. The cost includes land acquisition and road improvements, and expanded parking for hundreds of cars at Williams Park, a fishing pier and boat launch in Gibsonton. The companies would cover operations of the ferries and trams at MacDill for 20 years.

Supporters laud this as the beginning of an entirely new mass transit mode that could remove thousands of cars from the highway, speeding commute times for workers and reducing the emission of global-warming greenhouse gases. It's really a closed-loop system for federal workers assigned to a restricted military base and for tourists or sightseers enjoying the downtowns after hours or on weekends.

There's no reason local taxpayers should be paying for express service to MacDill. If the federal government wants to provide this service, fine. This is not a public-private partnership so much as a private business opportunity that would be publicly subsidized at both ends.

The proposal notes that Hillsborough could search for other state and local funding partners - including St. Petersburg and Pinellas County - but that is no guarantee. In reality most of the money is expected to come from the $23 million Hillsborough received from BP after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. That seems like a waste and hardly in keeping with the obligation to wring a broad public benefit from that environmental disaster. Supporters are also eyeing the $300 million a year that will be generated countywide with Hillsborough's new transportation tax. But night and weekend service for the general public hardly qualifies as a mass transit priority. If commissioners want to energize a repeal effort on the tax, this is it.

The BP money is not found money, and the transportation tax is not a slush fund. Commissioners should make clear that this proposal lacks balance, financial partners, a fair split between the public and private sectors and any clear idea of when and how genuine commuter ferry service might emerge. It is frustrating that after having financially supported this exploratory stage for so long, the county is no closer to a worthwhile proposal for continuous service.