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Hillsborough County Commission OKs $350,000 for St. Pete ferry pilot project

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

The Hillsborough County Commission voted 5-1 Wednesday to agree, based on certain conditions, to set aside $350,000 to help fund a pilot project that would bring ferry service from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa, beginning this October.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is spearheading the effort. He hopes to get a financial commitment of $350,000 from each of the four local governments that would benefit from the ferry service before his staff sits down with the private company that would run the service, HMS Ferries. The St. Petersburg City Council already has agreed to earmark that amount, which would have the ferry running from October to April, and Hillsborough has now become the second to provide a verbal agreement. Kriseman is looking for a similar financial commitment from the city of Tampa and Pinellas County.

“I think this is an incredible opportunity,” Kriseman told the BOCC. “This is something that I know the residents of my community have been talking about for a very long time. I’m assuming that you all probably have heard some of the same in your communities on this side of the bay, people wondering how two cities and two counties surrounded by water, have no waterfront transportation.”

Kriseman wanted the earmark today, but said he won’t need the actual money until a deal is cut with HMS Ferries, which probably won’t happen before the end of May. If the deal falls through, no public money will be expended.

For a couple of years, Hillsborough commissioners have been considering a ferry service with HMS Ferries that would run from South Hillsborough to MacDill Air Force Base, something alluded to by Commissioner Sandy Murman.

“This is the lowest-cost option that we have ever had in front of us for the ferry to test out this transportation idea,” said a gushing Murman. Alluding to the level of interest that she’s heard about the ferry proposal from her constituents in South County, Murman said, “this pilot is going to inject that enthusiasm and excitement in our community, and I think that’s what’s key.”

Most of her colleagues agreed, though Kevin Beckner told Kriseman he thought it was important to define what would be considered a successful pilot program. Would it be revenue coming in? Number of riders?

“I think usage is key,” the mayor replied, emphasizing that he didn’t want to be misleading and say that there was a certain financial return expected.

Commissioner Stacy White was the only dissenting vote. He said the program hadn’t been sufficiently vetted for the county to agree to the earmark. He also said it should be mandated that the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg contribute a higher amount of funding than the counties.

Board Chairman Les Miller agreed that it would be a tough sell to constituents living far from downtown Tampa. However, he said he would support the motion before Commissioners on Wednesday.

Kriseman said during his presentation that Tampa and St. Pete may have to put in more than $350,000. He said more money might be needed to pay for infrastructure improvements to dock boat or boats. Kriseman has said an additional $900,000 could pay for a second vessel.

The agreement requires:

  • County staff find a funding source for the $350,000;
  • That St. Pete provide a business and operating plan consist with what Kriseman has proposed;
  • That St. Pete’s operator work with Hillsborough County’s tourism agency to produce a marketing plan to ensure that retailers, hoteliers and others in Hillsborough benefit economically from the project;
  • That revenues generated are shared with project funders on a proportional basis; and
  • Determine whether there are any opportunities for any level of service or a demonstration run between St. Pete and South Hillsborough County is feasible.

Some members of the public applauded the proposal.

“Ferries on the Bay are an economic driver and a brand enhancement that just can’t be copied by other Florida cities that are competing with us,” said Tea Party activist Ken Roberts. “It’s a natural advantage with a free right of way.”

“If successful, we believe this ferry project would be an important first step toward developing new alternatives for regional public transportation,” said Kent Bailey, head of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. “The cost is very modest, and the results will be concrete.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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