TAMPA — The agency that runs Hillsborough County's buses should also run its ferries, the county commission decided Wednesday.
The Hillsborough County Commission voted 4-3 to "transfer" the proposed passenger ferry service connecting MacDill Air Force Base to the southern portion of the county to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
The dissenting commissioners argued that doing so could doom the ferry project.
But Commissioner Sandra Murman, who proposed the idea, said a transportation agency should oversee the project, not county government.
"In the end, the county is not a transit agency," she said. "I think we can start fresh. It's time to transition. It's time to send this to HART.
"This is not a 'no' vote for the ferry. This is a matter of where we are going to send it and who is going to be responsible for it."
Commissioners Ken Hagan, Les Miller and Stacy White agreed with her.
"We don't have the expertise to manage this project," White said.
Hagan added that he was concerned by the ferry proposal's "significant cost increases," calling the project a "house of cards" that could cost the county north of $36 million.
The four votes in favor of the idea have in the past all expressed doubts about the ferry project. Hagan, Murman and White make up the commission's Republican bloc. Miller, a Democrat, questions whether ferry service would benefit all county residents.
After the meeting, Murman said transit authority officials did not know in advance that she would make the proposal Wednesday. "But I mean, obviously, they probably felt it was coming," she said.
Transit authority CEO Benjamin Limmer, who took over in February, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that he "welcomes" the move.
"We have said from the outset that all modes and innovations are on the table for discussion and consideration," he said. "We look forward to understanding how water transportation can fit into a multimodal system that will serve the people of Hillsborough County."
The vote came about a week after Mosaic Fertilizer offered to donate a parcel from its Big Bend Marine Terminal site to the county to serve as the future location of a ferry terminal in Gibsonton. That would help the project overcome what has long been a hurdle: a waterfront location. Mosaic's land is just south of Port Redwing and west of U.S. 41, has space to build a terminal and parking, and access to Big Bend Road.
The matter before commissioners on Wednesday was whether they wanted to extend a county agreement with two private partners involved in the project to Sept. 30, so staff could examine the "suitability" of the Mosaic property.
But during the discussion, Murman said she thought it was time for the county to let its bus agency take charge, saying it's better equipped to handle transportation issues. She then motioned to hand the proposal off to the agency.
Other commissioners disagreed, saying Murman's idea would "kill" the project.
"This would just be a horrible thing," Commissioner Pat Kemp said. "We cannot continue kicking the can down the road."
Commissioners Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith agreed, saying that the transit agency is underfunded as is and won't be able to launch the ferry system anytime soon. Kemp said the county could handle the project itself until "HART is stable." There was no talk of how long that arrangement would last, or whether the bus agency would permanently oversee ferry service.
The commission has spent six years arguing about ferries. This latest iteration is a proposed public-private partnership between the county, ferry company HMS Global Maritime and the South Swell development group.
HMS has pledged to assume operating and maintenance costs for the passengers ferries, which is estimated to be $100 million over a 20-year term. But the county would have to buy or build the boats.
Supporters of the project say it would provide a low-cost, fast commuter service for about 8,000 employees at MacDill Air Force Base.
Staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report. Contact Sam Ogozalek at email@example.com or (813) 226-3430. Follow @SamOgozalek.