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Hillsborough moves forward on ferry project that may use BP settlement funds

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

While the Cross-Bay Ferry reportedly carries nearly 8,000 passengers in March as the six-month pilot project ends later this month, Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a proposal Wednesday to move ahead on a public-private partnership plan to take passengers from South County to MacDill Air Force Base, then to St. Petersburg.

The plan would include using the $22 million settlement money the county received from the BP oil spill while building a marina that could be used to service the ferry in southeastern Hillsborough County.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said he’s wanted to present the plan since the country received the $22.8 million in BP funds in the summer of 2015.

“I want to stress that this agenda item does not lock us into a marina or a ferry agreement,” he told his colleagues. “It is simply considering a different model or approach in an attempt to achieve a long-term operating and capital agreement.”

The plan would also include hiring a consultant who works on ferry projects to study where the public marina should be located.

It’s been nearly four years since attorney and public transportation advocate Ed Turanchik held a news conference with officials from Seattle-based HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group to discuss a public-private partnership that would initiate Tampa Bay’s first commuter, recreational and tourist passenger ferry service.

The original idea came from county studies showing that thousands of commuters who live in South Hillsborough County and drive to MacDill Air Force Base on a daily basis would take a ferry service if it were an option.

Initial costs for the project were estimated between $11.5-$16 million, with more recent projections doubling that amount. In 2014, Tampa U.S. Representative Kathy Castor procured a $4.8 million Federal Transit Administration grant, bringing momentum to the plan.

But the project bogged down when Turanchik’s originally proposed site for the terminal in Southeastern Hillsborough County – the Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve just north of Apollo Beach – drew opposition from some environmental groups.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said that the original interim agreement with HMS & South Swell “was created with a different approach,” but said that it was time now to look at a different model “for a lot of reasons.”

The proposals (the board separated the vote into three separate motions) were all approved unanimously, 6-0 (Commissioner Al Higginbotham was absent).

“We’re getting to a point where we can make hard and fast decisions,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has been a strong advocate for the ferry going back to 2013.  She also extolled the success of the Cross-Bay Ferry, which sold a record 7,990 tickets in March, a 31-percent over February, which was the previous high water mark since the six-month pilot project running from Tampa to St. Petersburg began in November.

Commissioner Victor Crist said he and his constituents in Northern Hillsborough County like the idea of a municipal marina. “It could be a very lucrative venture where we could very easily double of triple our investment,” he said.

The board also approved an amendment from Commission Chair Stacy White to direct staff to incorporate federal funds in the funding mechanism.

Commissioners had already said they were willing to drop the $4.8 million FTA grant because of the excessive bureaucracy required to accept those funds, causing a delay in the project.

Murman said it was worth the request because she believes the Trump administration is going to introduce a federal infrastructure plan “without strings.”

“If he does that and this does qualify, we may want to go that route,” she said, admitting that she didn’t know for certain.

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

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