Distant shore

High hopes, big challenges for the proposed MacDill/South County ferry.

click to enlarge Ed Turanchik - Chip Weiner
Chip Weiner
Ed Turanchik

Ferry service is a regular aspect of commuting in many of our greatest American cities — Seattle, New York, San Francisco — and throughout the world. Which is why Mark Fernandez was so startled to learn that there had never been a serious effort to create such a service here.

“You’d have to look really long and hard to find another geographical model like Tampa Bay that is so conducive to water-borne transportation,” says Fernandez.

As the Florida project manager for HMS Ferries, Inc., he’s hoping a proposed ferry service between MacDill Air Force Base and South Hillsborough County will prove his point.

Hillsborough planners have long been interested in the ferry issue. Taking impetus from a $475,000 federal transportation infrastructure grant scored by Congresswoman Kathy Castor in 2009, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) conducted an in-depth study of the demand for ferry service in the region. Of the nine routes studied, a Tampa/St. Pete service had the broadest appeal, but the only one that made financial sense was MacDill/South County. Still, with a price tag estimated at $20 million, the study was consigned to the proverbial shelf.

Enter Ed Turanchik.

Shortly after his energizing but ultimately unsuccessful run for mayor in Tampa in 2011, the former county commissioner and West Tampa developer settled in at the law firm of Ackerman Senterfitt. While serving as a member of Ackerman’s public policy group, he learned about the MPO ferry survey. If nothing was done soon, the county was going to have to return the transportation money procured by Castor.

He says he found the study “compelling.” But he realized that, with such large subsidies required, the only way the project could ever see the light of day was to find a private partner. He found his partner in HMS, an international vessel management, marine transportation, and consulting company based out of Bainbridge Island, Washington.

For months, HMS’ Mark Fernandez and his team conducted demographic research and in-the-water surveys, in which a boat is run at various speeds through prospective routes. But the biggest draw for HMS was this statistic from the MPO survey: 5,300 MacDill employees who commute five days a week from the South County region said that if ferries were an option, they would gladly take them, bypassing the Crosstown, U.S. 41, Bayshore Boulevard and all other land routes.

“That’s what’s really unique,” Fernandez says: a concentrated bloc of riders, all going to the same place. “That doesn’t happen very often,” he says, and once his team saw the research supporting that solid group of riders, HMS was all in. In addition, the company projected that, if the MacDill route worked, its success could lay the groundwork for HMS to expand service to Tampa/St. Pete.

But HMS wasn’t on board for the $20 million in capital costs. Of that amount, $6.5 million is slated to go toward the two boats (seating approximately 250 people each) as well as trams that would move people from the MacDill dock to their offices on base.

Another chunk of the funds would be used for construction of a docking terminal for the ferries in South County. Officials viewed 12 different sites over the last year, finally focusing on the Fred and Ida Schultz Preserve, an area located on the Gulf coast south of Gibsonton and owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). Turanchik and HMS brought in a third partner, the South Swell Development Group, and worked out a land swap; in exchange for 46 acres of environmentally sensitive land owned by South Swell, SFWMD would give the ferry team 20 acres of the Schultz Preserve, to be renamed Schultz Park.

Working closely with Turanchik throughout this time has been environmental activist Mariella Smith, who says the entire proposal is “a win” for the environment in South County and overall, because in both cases the land stays in the public domain.

Nevertheless, the upfront costs are a big ask. Turanchik says the deal can’t come together without the county paying those costs — but the key here is that after the boats are purchased and Schultz Park built, the county’s financial obligations would be finished, with no subsidies required after that.

HMS currently operates 14 vessel services across the country, including the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz Island and Niagara Falls ferries, all of which are supported by government subsidies. But the company believes so strongly in the profitability of the MacDill route that it’s confident it can operate without help from the county.

Turanchik says it’s the first time in America that a private ferry operator has been willing to make such an arrangement. “That’s unprecedented.”

During discussions that saw the county approve $100,000 to study the project further, Commissioner Sandy Murman expressed excitement but also caution, especially about the capital costs. “As a steward of the taxpayer dollars, I don’t think that’s a wise investment because if something happens, what are we doing to do with a dock and a bunch of boats, you know? It will be tough.”

Hillsborough County MPO director Ray Chiaramonte understands that taxpayers may be reluctant to fork over so much, but he says in the transportation world, $20 million is really not that high a price. “That‘s like an intersection improvement.”

There has been criticism of the fact that the promised Tampa-to-St. Petersburg route — by far the most exciting possibility (see Linda Saul-Sena’s column) — isn’t laid out specifically yet. Jeannie Cline of the group Ride the Tide in St. Pete asks, “Just how are locals and visitors going to benefit from a high-speed ferry to MacDill?” Getting across the bay is the biggest transportation problem in the region, she points out, so spending so much money on the MacDill line would only delay a trans-bay ferry.

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Mark Sharpe has similar concerns. “It’s gotta have a much bigger footprint in order for it to really prove itself to be something viable,” he says.

The organizers are making a case on their website for the MacDill option by playing the patriotism card: “We believe that reducing the cost of living for our military families and giving them the opportunity to spend more quality time with their families is a good and worthy thing to do to help the people who protect and defend our security and freedom.”

Honorable, certainly, but enough for a community buy-in?

To those who wish that Tampa/St. Pete were the prime objective, Turanchik urges patience. “No one would ever try to do off-peak service in this market without the core base of support,” adding that if the service was exclusively between the two major cities, “it would be completely expensive, and anyone who would try it would go bankrupt.”

HMS says they’ve received lots of support from the business community in both Tampa and St. Petersburg about different transit options, including near Gandy Blvd. They’re also interested in what will evolve out of the current morass at Channelside.

So what’s next? A series of steps need to be taken over the next few months: there is work to be done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and a whole lot of permits need to be obtained. The Department of Defense needs to give a thumbs-up as well.

But Mark Fernandez says whatever one wants to call this period, don’t say it’s a feasibility study.
“That’s been long done,” he says.

So can this all come together? Or will the forces that usually find a way to say no embrace this public/private partnership?

“For every conservative critic who ever bashed any transit project,” exclaims Turanchik, “they should be standing on top of a mountain saying, ‘Hallelujah! Finally, this is what we were talking about!” 

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