Today's action was much more modest, however. The board voted 6-1 to approve up to $100,000 in funding to pay for a study of what is actually being proposed — a ferry service that would take south Hillsborough County citizens to MacDill Air Force Base and back from a dock built north of Apollo Beach. It would be a public-private partnership with the county working with two private entities.
The project has the promise of "doing more with less, faster with greater benefit," said former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who is representing one of the private companies involved, HMS Ferries, Inc.
Turanchik stood in front of the board for over an hour on Wednesday morning to discuss what is known as a P3, or public-private development plan. In addition to HMS Ferries (which would operate the ferry service), a second company, the South Swell Development Group, would be involved because they own the land where organizers want to build a docking terminal.
That land swap would take 46 acres of that private land (which is considered environmentally sensitive and is on a list to be purchased by the ELAPP program) and swap it for 20 acres that the county owns.
Surveys have already been conducted to determine interest by MacDill employees who currently commute from South Hillsborough County, and Turanchik said the results have been so positive that HMS is fully committed to the project. The ultimate goal would be to have commuter ferry service that would run every half hour during peak morning and afternoon drive times, as well as evening and weekend service.
County Administrator Mike Merill kicked off the discussion by saying that there were eight preconditions that needed to be satisfied "to the sole discretion of the county" before the project could happen. They include acquiring grant money from the Federal Highway Administration, approval from the Tampa Port Authority for access to the site, approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and what could potentially be the longest wait, approval from the Department of Defense, which runs MacDill.
Turanchik told commissioners that the ferry would initially take 1,200 cars off of I-75, Bayshore Boulevard, Dale Mabry, the Selmon Expressway and all other roads that link south county to South Tampa, and specifically MacDill. Total distance via Tampa Bay? Just six miles.
He said terminals are the toughest part of such a proposal, and this plan calls for building a waterfront park that would include a concession stand, restroom and parking for ferry passengers and visitors.
Although this first step passed easily, commissioners challenged Turanchik on various parts of the proposal. Several were concerned about the fact that the county investment of boats and a park could go for naught if the service became unpopular, or if MacDill were ultimately shut down.
"This is not a bridge to nowhere," Turanchik assured Mark Sharpe. "Let's say it doesn't work. The boats are sold, the docks are sold, they all have value. And the county has a nice waterfront park."
The only holdout for the plan was Commissioner Les Miller, who appeared piqued that Turanchik had not personally briefed him about the proposal, something he mentioned twice as he repeatedly said "I'm just not there yet." Miller had concerns about security at MacDill. Turanchik said he and his team had met six times already with MacDill officials and those concerns would continue to be addressed as the plan moved forward.
"I don't know if there's any other transportation plan that provides congestion relief and creates capacity for such a modest investment compared to other transportation projects," commented Commissioner Ken Hagan.
Commissioner Sandy Murman said that while some residents she had heard from had expressed concerns, "You have to take a first step to find out if you can take the next step," she said in announcing her support.
The business community appears to be solidly behind the effort. Representatives from the Tampa, St. Petersburg and SouthShore Chambers of Commerce were in attendance to back the proposal.
Though ferry service from Tampa to St. Pete and back is not the immediate focus, it was certainly on the minds of those officials. "This proposal would also provide a boost in tourism," said Travis Norton from the St. Pete Chamber. He fantasized about visitors vacationing in St. Petersburg who could take the ferry to Channelside to visit the Florida Aquarium, use the Tampa Streetcar to hang out in Ybor City, and then return to St. Pete to take in a Rays game.