The ferry project comes back Wednesday to the Hillsborough County Commission, and predictably this fairy tale needs what it always needs — more time and more money. With the costs piling up and no end in sight, it's time for commissioners to move on and hand this project to a more suitable sponsor: the federal government, the private sector or even the area's mass transit agencies.
The ferry, as proposed, would operate between MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and south Hillsborough County, where many base workers reside. The project has been stalled for years over environmental concerns, red tape and funding issues. Last month, Mosaic Fertilizer offered the county the right to use a portion of the company's Big Bend site for a ferry terminal "at no or nominal cost," assuming the two sides could resolve any issues arising from a site review. On Wednesday, commissioners will consider extending the term of its exploratory deal with the two private companies involved in the venture, HMS Ferries and South Swell Development. The move would extend contract negotiations with the companies another month, to Sept. 30, the eleventh time the agreement has been modified since 2014. Perhaps the 11th time will be the charm, but that's unlikely.
This would be an enormous commitment of county resources for what would be largely a closed transit system for MacDill employees. Spending millions to ferry workers to a restricted military base has no broad public benefit. While the ferry would be open to the general public on weekends, offering trips between Tampa and St. Petersburg, the selling point has always been MacDill. That's why the plan should be funded with federal or private dollars, not an already over-extended county budget.
The latest modification to the deal underscores how many questions are still unanswered after all these years. While the county set aside $22 million to pay for the project through money it obtained from the BP oil spill settlement, the estimate cost rose to $30 million last year. Now it stands at almost $37 million. That figure could even rise at Mosaic's site, according to material prepared for Wednesday's commission meeting, because of the need to build access roads at Big Bend.
The rising cost also reflects how bad a fit this project is for the commission's consideration. If the MacDill ferry is truly poised to become a regional transportation asset, as its supporters claim, then it should fall under the purview of the county's mass transit agency, HART — not the county commission. Let the ferry compete with other transit projects of similar scope and costs. A fuller examination by HART could also provide critical answers about MacDill's long-term commitment, the market for regional ferry service and the appropriate level of cost-sharing by the private sector and other government agencies.
It says something that no other public or private entity has stepped forward to take on the obligations the ferry seeks from Hillsborough. This would be a costly project with little public benefit that is entirely in the wrong hands. If the mass transit agency or the federal government or private financiers consider it worthwhile and financially feasible, let them pay for it.