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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough leaders need more time to decide on regional ferry service

The Cross-Bay Ferry, seen here loading passengers in downtown St. Petersburg in January, reported promising numbers for its 2018-19 season. Now the operators want to partner with Hillsborough County for permanent service. But Hillsborough commissioners moved cautiously on Wednesday during a discussion about the proposal, asking county staff to collect more information by August. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Cross-Bay Ferry, seen here loading passengers in downtown St. Petersburg in January, reported promising numbers for its 2018-19 season. Now the operators want to partner with Hillsborough County for permanent service. But Hillsborough commissioners moved cautiously on Wednesday during a discussion about the proposal, asking county staff to collect more information by August. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 15, 2019

TAMPA — A highly anticipated public discussion of regional ferry service fell flat Wednesday when, after two hours, Hillsborough County commissioners voted to delay any major decisions on the idea.

The board heard a consultant's report on what year-round, permanent ferry service between South Hillsborough County, MacDill Air Force Base, downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg would look like.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Partners propose seven-day ferry service linking Hillsborough, MacDill, Tampa, St. Pete

Many people spoke during public comment and emailed commissioners in support of the project, citing the recent success of the Cross-Bay Ferry linking Tampa and St. Petersburg. The second season ended April 30 and boasted more than 52,000 trips in six months.

The seven-member board unanimously voted to continue setting aside money every year for seasonal ferry service — as long as other local governments continue to contribute an equal amount.

But board members took little action beyond that. Many of the details for expanded regional service were known to the public before Wednesday's meeting. The big question was whether commissioners would agree to foot a $36.5 million bill to help get the new routes up and running.

Commissioners decided to buy themselves more time and delay that decision until August. The hope is that county staff can use the next couple months to get answers on a few snags that could halt the project entirely, despite being six years in the making.

The biggest threat to the project, which would put a dock at Williams Park near Gibsonton, are three acres of land owned by Mosaic, the world's largest phosphate company. Commissioner Ken Hagan and County Administrator Mike Merrill told the board the company has no interest in selling the property.

"I interpret their concerns and the fact they will not sell the necessary three acres ... as a deal killer," Hagan said. "I think this is a classic case of wishful thinking."

The proposed service would run four boats between Williams Park and MacDill on all weekdays, except federal holidays, at 15-minute intervals during morning and evening rush hours. Two of the four boats also would be used for trips between South Hillsborough, downtown Tampa and the St. Petersburg waterfront on weeknights and weekends. A third boat could be added on days the Tampa Bay Lightning or Rays play, or for special events. If ridership spiked, officials could consider adding a third or fourth boat to the route daily.

The four commissioners who supported the project touted the fact that partners HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Corp. would cover 20 years of operating and maintenance costs — expected to exceed $100 million. The proposal for the MacDill commuter service projected at least 1,500 daily riders and a reduction of about 11 million vehicle miles traveled a year.

"I've never heard of a transit system anywhere where we will not have to maintain or be responsible for the operational costs," Commissioner Pat Kemp said. "I think it's an incredible opportunity for us here to make a transformative decision about this community."

A divide between long-serving Republican commissioners and recently elected Democrats grew as the debate continued, with both Hagan and Murman taking a few verbal shots at their fellow board members.

"Candidly, I believe there are some commissioners who are blindly supporting this plan and ignoring the issues that exist," Hagan said.

Murman and Hagan warned that the newer board members hadn't witnessed the eight modifications the ferry plan had undergone since commissioners first considered a commuter service linking South County and MacDill in 2013. Environmental concerns, rising costs and dock locations have repeatedly halted progress on the project, including when commissioners spiked the project in November.

RELATED: Survey says: Cross-Bay Ferry riders support year-round, regional service

The new board voted in December to bring the concept back for study and discussion.

Commissioners narrowly approved extending an agreement with HMS and South Swell through Aug. 15 in hopes of addressing some of the concerns with the regional project. In addition to engaging Mosaic in discussions, county staff also was instructed to see what role Hillsborough's transit agency could play and to address parking issues for truck and boat trailers on weekends and holidays at Williams Park.

Hagan, Murman and Commissioner Les Miller voted against the motions.

"I'm very much interested in making the whole project work," Commissioner Kimberly Overman said, "but I do believe there is work to do."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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