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High-speed ferry makes a wake in community meeting

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image South County community advocate Mariella Smith with Ed Turanchik of the Public Policy Group of Akerman Senterfitt, one of the partners in the Tampa Bay High Speed Ferry project. Photo Michelle Traphagen

“Interest will increase in this region if there is a 25-minute ferry ride versus a 45-minute drive. This could create huge economic development for South County.”

By Mitch Traphagen
“We cannot pave our way out of our transportation problems,” South County community advocate Mariella Smith said, during a meeting on May 22 to discuss a possible future high speed ferry.

The meeting, held at Waterset in Apollo Beach, was attended by three dozen people to hear Greg Dronkert, President of HMS Ferries, Inc., Mark Fernandez, also of HMS Ferries, Ed Turanchik with the Public Policy Practice Group of Akerman Senterfitt and Smith make the case for why high speed ferries could be a viable and cost-effective transportation alternative in an era of high gas prices and increasingly overburdened freeways.

The Tampa Bay High Speed Ferry Project is conceived as a public-private initiative that would begin with ferry service from a point near South Hillsborough to MacDill. HMS Ferries, Inc. is a member of a global company operating ferries carrying more than 16 million passengers annually.
The initial service to MacDill would serve as a proof of concept for the viability of ferry service in the Tampa Bay area. The company pointed out that currently MacDill employees typically travel 22 to 35 miles in driving to work versus having to travel only six miles across the bay. Security to the nationally sensitive base could also be enhanced as there would be fewer vehicles that would require searches for entrance to the base.

“Boarding the vessel would have security,” Dronkert said. “Two hundred and fifty people could be processed in a few minutes.”

Although the company doesn’t believe that full commuter service is yet viable in this area, they do see the potential for growth in the near future, particularly in relation to tourism with service to St. Pete that could connect to the city’s trolley service, as well as to Tampa near the Florida Aquarium, that could connect to that city’s trolley service into Ybor City.

“Interest will increase in this region if there is a 25-minute ferry ride versus a 45-minute drive,” Turanchik said. “This could create huge economic development for South County.”

According to HMS Ferries, Inc., most major urban areas built around bays already have commuter ferry service, including New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston in the U.S. alone.

HMS Ferries, Inc. and Akerman Senterfitt are proposing the project as a public-private partnership that would require relatively little public investment compared to other types of transportation projects but could come with big rewards for moving people around the Bay Area, connecting major corridors of the region and promoting tourism, and ultimately providing a cost-effective option for thousands of commuters to MacDill and eventually to the downtowns.

During her talk, Mariella Smith pointed out that the ferry would go both ways.

“This gives us the opportunity to literally get a boat load of people to local events or to the Firehouse Cultural Center,” she said.

Smith went on to say that she is thrilled about this opportunity to connect communities.

According to the backers, the project is designed to maximize public benefit while minimizing public risk. HMS Ferries, Inc. has committed to funding the full operational cost of the service to demonstrate the viability of the service in the Tampa Bay Area. The company says this is unprecedented in the United States.

“You don’t see privately funded transportation projects,” Dronkert said.

The company would, however, seek county, state and/or federal funds for the capital projects such as the necessary land-side docking facilities and roads to those facilities. Despite that, the company states that this proposal is unique in that they will assume the bulk of the financial risk, including the risk of operational losses, while the public entities would retain the rights to the assets and improvements created.

Compared to building or expanding highways, utilizing the bay could save the public money.

As an example, backers stated that 71 busses would be required to carry 2,700 commuters at an estimated cost of $30 million and a greater than $3 million public subsidy. Only three high-speed ferries would be required for that same capacity at a cost of $15 million and no public operational subsidy.

“We want to be here, this area has great transportation opportunities,” Dronkert said. “Our motivation is to help kick start this project, to help put this into motion. We aren’t trying to sell you anything. We believe in this project.”

He estimated that break even could occur within two to three years.

“This is an opportunity for Hillsborough County to get it right,” Turanchik added.

The meeting at Waterset in Apollo Beach was one of three such meetings, with the others held in Tampa and St. Petersburg. South County is integral to the project as an area near or north of Big Bend Road is seen as a potential site for the proof of concept service.

“I commute to Ybor City every day,” one attendee said. “If this project means getting cars off of [Highway] 41, then I’m willing to do it.”

 “I can’t wait to take a ferry to downtown Tampa, then catch a trolley to Ybor City,” Smith said.

For more information, visit www.tampabayhighspeedferry.com.

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