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Planners assessing Tampa Bay water taxi for commuters

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image Typical New York City water taxi.

A cross-bay taxi service would markedly reduce driving times, take cars off roadways, perhaps even make commutes more enjoyable.

By MELODY JAMESON

While many questions remain, professional planners now are examining an unusual transportation answer: a commuters’ Tampa Bay water taxi from a South County site.

A feasibility study is underway and the consultant’s preliminary report is expected when various area transportation authorities convene next week.

 Hillsborough County has access to nearly a half million dollars in federal grant monies earmarked for engineering and construction work on just such a project.

And a cross-bay taxi service would markedly reduce driving times, take cars off roadways, perhaps even make commutes more enjoyable.

But would westbound workers starting from east side locales use the service and can it be made financially viable.

These are among the key issues transportation planners are evaluating as they consider the prospect of a water ferry from the mouth of the Alafia River to MacDill AFB, daily carrying both military and civilian personnel to and from the base that has become a strategic, multi-disciplinary, command installation.

The Hillsborough County Water Ferry Feasibility Study was initiated in March when area transportation leaders agreed the idea was worth a look. The interested entities and agencies include MacDill, Hillsborough County, the Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit system (HART), The Planning Commission and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

Subsequently, Jacobs Engineering, a Tampa-based firm, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), an arm of The Planning Commission, to examine whether a taxi service could be designed and whether it could become financially advantageous for users as well as for operators, according to Randy Kranjec, an MPO planner. Jacobs also works with Cambridge Systematics, a national firm with Florida east coast offices which has specific experience in water ferry projects, Kranjec added.

Initial consideration of the concept by transportation engineers and planners narrowed the range of possible routes across the bay to a first focus on the Alafia-to-MacDill trip accommodating South and East County residents commuting regularly to jobs or facilities on the base, the planner said. He noted that a large number of the personnel assigned to the base in recent years have purchased family homes in communities on the east side of Tampa Bay.

The Alafia-to-MacDill route might begin at or near Williams Park which is located on the river a short distance inland from the point where river and bay meet and in the vicinity of Mosaic’s phosphate processing plant. The phosphate mining and processing giant is aware of the concept under discussion and has not raised any objections, Kranjec said.

The planner also noted that a commercial, passenger-carrying, water taxi or ferry across the bay has been batted around without any notion of funding options for the last 10 to 15 years. The idea began to get more serious attention, he added, when Hillsborough learned a couple of years ago that it could access $475,000 in grant monies from the Federal Highway Administration, if the funds were dedicated to such a project.

 Appealing though the notion may be to some, Kranjec cautioned there are a number of questions yet to be answered and a raft of details to be worked through before such a taxi or ferry can go from drawing board to waterfront. The concept will require a private operator “to make it happen,” the planner said, adding the project will have to be financially appealing to such an operator.

Then, there are the matters of travel times in real time and costs to users along with vehicle savings that would make such a commuting method desirable enough to build ridership. There are “a lot of rungs on this ladder and we’re still on the first one,” the planner emphasized.

Some of the answers may begin to take shape next Friday, October 21, when transportation planners hear the engineers’ first assessment of the concept’s viability, based on the South County to military base route. The public meeting is scheduled for 1:30 PM in planning commission Tampa offices, Kranjec said, adding that public comment is taken at the end of each session.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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