Hillsborough takes plunge with high speed ferry

Board commits $125,000 to research proposal

Considering just how long Tampa has been sitting next to Tampa Bay, residents like Marilyn Smith wondered why it took so long for the concept of a ferry service across the water to gain ground.

"This is way better than wasting more money on stupid rails," said a passionate Smith at Wednesday's meeting of the Hillsborough County Commission.  "They're very costly to maintain."

That's part of the argument from HMS Ferries, Inc., the company that wants county support to start a ferry line between MacDill Air Force Base and a location between Apollo Beach and Gibsonton.  

The company's presentation showed that an investment of $17 million would be enough to build two ferry terminals and buy several boats.  Compare that to the billions other communities have committed to projects like commuter rail or road widening and it seems like a bargain.

"It's about time," said Joanne O'Brien, a Tampa resident who voiced support for the project.

Businesswoman Janet Dougherty of Wimauma said taking the ferry to Tampa would be a no brainer.

"I put 40,000 miles on my car every year and I can tell you in this burgeoning area in south county there's a lot of gridlock and failing roads," Dougherty said.

The proposal calls for studying details on building one ferry terminal on the shoreline north of the TECO plant in Apollo Beach, and another near MacDill.  County commissioners committed up to $125,000 for the study, which could take six months.

The rail line would operate Monday through Friday during business hours, transporting mostly military workers at MacDill.  However, on weekends HMS representatives said the ferries could make additional trips to Channelside in Tampa and across the bay to St. Petersburg, depending on what the market wants.

Tickets would cost an estimated $10 round trip.  HMS said it would eventually pay the $14 million dollar annual operating costs if the county, state, or both could fund the startup costs.

Some commissioners were skeptical about the project.  Les Miller was the lone vote against funding the research, saying he didn't have enough facts to be convinced.

"I don't want to see taxpayer dollars being put forth and we're not able to accomplish a goal," Miller said.  "I just can't get there today."

Commissioner Victor Crist voted in favor, but not before asking whether there's a legitimate demand for a high speed ferry service.

"Has anyone measured the attitudes of the potential riders to see what percentage would actually use this?" Crist asked.

HMS lobbyist Ed Turanchik assured the board that they had the support of multiple chambers of commerce and many members of the community.  Turanchik said he had talked with officials at MacDill, and said support from the military would be more likely if the county jumped on board the ferry idea first.

Environmental groups also praised the ferry concept.  The Sierra Club of Tampa said it was in favor of a project that helped take cars off the road, and thus reduce pollution and congestion.

"I've taken high speed ferries before in Europe," said Sierra Club member Patricia Kemp.

"It's a wonderful way to clean our air, clean our water ad provide us with a really fun, elegant way to commute in Tampa Bay."

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