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Proposed MacDill passenger ferry service afloat again after Hillsborough commissioners reverse decision

Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday reversed a November vote that scrapped a proposed private-public partnership for a passenger ferry service from southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base. The service could later include routes to Tampa and St. Petersburg. [Photo courtesy of HMS Global Maritime]
Published Dec. 6, 2018

TAMPA — New commission, new decision.

Less than one month after Hillsborough County commissioners scrapped a proposed MacDill passenger ferry project, the new Democratic majority commission has breathed new life into the project.

Commissioners voted 5-1 Wednesday to reverse a November decision that terminated the county's public private partnership agreement with ferry company HMS Global Maritime and the South Swell development group. Commissioner Les Miller, a long-time skeptic of the project, was the lone nay vote.

The vote doesn't guarantee the proposed service will be built between southern Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base, but it restarts the next step in the process: a $774,000 contract with a consultant to conduct a ridership survey and a study on where to build a ferry terminal.

Still, it marks an sharp U-turn compared to the previous Republican controlled commission, which on Nov. 8 seemed intent on burying the project that has been five years in the works without even agreement on where the ferry could dock.

Commissioners then cited a consultant's report that stated the costs of docks, boats and parking at a south county terminal may be as much as $30 million, well above the $22 million in BP settlement money the county set aside in 2017.

There was also concern that the Southwest Water Management District is asking $12.5 million and a land swap for one potential site — the Fred and Idah Schultz Nature Preserve. Other potential sites include Williams Park and Kracker Road.

Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman, whose district includes the Schultz property, said she would reverse her November vote but still has substantial doubts the project is viable. The water agency's demands and rising costs could mean the project will end up costing as much as $50 million, she said.

"I'm trying to look for the light at the end of the tunnel on this project," she said.

Fellow Republican Commissioner Stacy White also reversed his vote but said he remains opposed to the Schultz preserve being used as a terminal, which would include large parking lots.

"There is a perception that a lame duck board took action and the other party didn't get a fair hearing," he said. "That was certainly not my intent."

First proposed in 2013, the ferry was intended to provide a low-cost, fast and congestion-proof commuter service for about 8,000 MacDill Air Force Base employees who live in south county.

But concerns about the environmental impact of a terminal and where to build it led to years of delays and setbacks.

Throughout that period, HMS and South Swell were represented by former commissioner and Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik.

On Wednesday, Turanchik sent a letter to the county stating that he will no longer lobby for the two companies, who will now be represented by Jim Porter, another attorney at the Akerman law firm.

Commissioner Pat Kemp, who was the lone vote against scrapping the ferry, requested the project be brought back for consideration by the new commission. She is a supporter of Turanchik and served on the host committee for the launch of his mayoral campaign.

Officials from HMS and South Swell welcomed the commission's reversal. The studies and site selection report are likely to come before the commission again in March.

"We are very pleased by the County Commission's unanimous vote to reinstate the MacDill Ferry Partnership Agreement today," said Rob Harte of South Swell Development Group, lead developer for the private partnership. "We will have business plans with ridership projections by early March detailing how to start ferry service for the Schultz, Kracker Road and Williams Park terminal options in South County."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_times.

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