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Proposed Ferry Service Would Link Tampa, St. Petersburg, South Hillsborough and MacDill

Ferry service in Tampa Bay could include a new stop as well as commuter service to MacDill Air Force Base if a new plan moves forward.

Business leaders and elected officials announced the proposal at a press conference Tuesday in downtown Tampa.

The public-private partnership between HMS Ferries Inc., South Swell Development Corp. and Hillsborough County would result in commuter service from Williams Park in south Hillsborough to MacDill Air Force Base on weekdays.

The service would require the construction of two new ferry docks at those sites as well as expanded parking and a tram service to connect ferry passengers from the MacDill stop to the base itself.

A fleet of four 149-passenger vessels would run frequent service between the South County dock and MacDill on weekdays. Unlike the current Cross-Bay Ferry boats, the new boats would be front-loading to move more passengers on and off at a time.

At least two of those boats would then connect southern Hillsborough County with Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg. Crowded events like Lightning and Rays games or music festivals would result in more boats being deployed.

Former Hillsborough Commissioner and long-time transit advocate Ed Turanchik represents the private partners as an attorney with Akerman LLP. He said they will  commit over $100 million to cover operational costs and most maintenance costs for 20 years.

The county will have to secure $36.5 million dollars in capital costs.

“So that's a one-time, upfront capital cost for local government and then for the next 20 years, they don't have to pay anything,” Turanchik said, adding that this would be the only regional transit service in Florida that doesn’t require local or state operating subsidies.

“That cost, by the way, is equivalent to one or two miles of suburban road-widening.”

There are a variety of ways Hillsborough County could come up with the money.

Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp said the county already set aside $23 million in BP Oil recovery funds for the ferry project. There is also the possibility of using some of the proceeds from the new transportation tax voters approved last November.

That tax is being challenged in court by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and a Temple Terrace resident who filed a separate lawsuit.

The county may also be able to receive funds from the Florida Department of Transportation, and planners expect St. Petersburg or Pinellas may chip in as well.

“Really the big question always with these projects, any transportation project that I’ve ever known, while the capital may seem daunting, it’s more the operations cost,” said Kemp. “That is really the more daunting, long-term thing, and that is already dealt with.”

Ultimately, the county will have to approve the proposal before it moves forward. Kemp said the first steps upon approving the plan will be to start conducting environmental impact studies at Williams Park and begin the permitting process for construction.

Turanchik said environmental groups like Audubon Florida and the Sierra Club opposed previous proposals for a ferry dock at Schulz Preserve but support the Williams Park site.

Rob Harte, a principal with Swell Development explained that their analysis determined, “a ferry terminal at Williams Park would have the highest ridership, lowest cost and could be built faster than other potential locations.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he expects the city’s role will be building its own new ferry dock. He said the city was already looking to build one in the Pier District that would allow for more parking than its dock near Vinoy Park.

But Kriseman said planners will have to ensure whatever site they choose can accommodate the new front-loading boats.

"That I think is what our part of this partnership is going to be, if we want a boat to come to St. Pete we've got to provide a place for it to come," he said.

Kriseman said the idea behind the Cross-Bay service, which only uses one boat and runs temporarily, was always to spur future commuter service. He said he supports the plan for expanded service and hopes it will eventually lead to commuter service between St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa and the West Shore area.

Planners expect service could start as soon as 2022. Kriseman said until then, he will continue to push to keep seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry service running between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Last year FDOT issued a 3-year grant.

The Cross-Bay Ferry wraps up its season on April 30. It’s unclear when it will return.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.