A project to shuttle people across Tampa Bay from somewhere in South County to a location near or on MacDill Air Force Base has been stalled before any actual work was begun.
In February 2014, the Hillsborough County Commission gave the approval to county employees to continue working with HMS Ferries South Swell Development Group to study the ferry’s feasibility and the location of a terminal.
Public meetings concerning a ferry project began several years earlier with the objective of getting traffic off roads and bridges.
As reported in 2014 and 2015 in The Observer News, the project would begin with two high-capacity catamarans that would ferry the 7,800 MacDill employees who travel across Tampa Bay daily to work — and later take on more people.
With another 330,000 people projected to move into the county by 2020, those proposing the idea say it is needed to alleviate traffic that is already tied up and will get worse every year.
“We studied 14 sites,” said Ed Turanchik in an interview last week. “It was decided that the Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve just north of Apollo Beach would have the least environmental impact.”
Turanchik is a former county commissioner and a lawyer specializing in government affairs and public policy. He now represents HMS Ferries and says he believes strongly in the project.
“The county put up $475,000 for this in 2009,” said Turanchik. “Then the federal government put in $4.87 million in June 2014 to total $5.2 million. But with federal dollars, come lots of federal regulations and this project is just not moving along. It is so disappointing that it does not seem to be anyone’s priority.”
Turanchik said Hillsborough County, HARTline and the Federal Transit Administration must work together to figure out how a study must be done.
“No one has even picked a consultant yet,” he continued. “That is how far behind we are.”
Expectations were that construction would start in 2017, with the first ferry launching in 2018.
Part of the problems lie in the fact that the proposed site is a preserve.
Looking at maps of the shores of South County, it is obvious that all lands from the Apollo Beach Nature Preserve north through an area known as “The Kitchen,” for its famous fishing capabilities, are environmentally sensitive in one way or another.
According to information provided by the Southwest Water Management District (Swiftmud) website and other county sites, the peninsula was created in the 1960s and 1970s by depositing soil on 300 acres of seagrass beds, oyster bars, tidal flats, an island, mangroves and coastal uplands.
The dredging was conducted to create a shipping facility and resulted in 14 feet of soil dredged from the Bay bottom and piled up to make the peninsula. The port facility never materialized and the site lay vacant for more than 30 years.
Finally, in 1995, the northern 134 acres of the peninsula were purchased by Swiftmud and Hillsborough County through its Environmental Lands Acquisition and Protection Program. In 2000, the county and Swiftmud entered into a cooperative agreement for the ecosystem restoration of the site.
SWFWMD was responsible for the design and construction, and the County would provide post-construction management of the restoration area. Indeed, construction was started in September 2003 and was completed in September 2004.
Still, proponents of the ferry project say that compared to the other locations from which South County could launch ferries, the Schultz preserve has the least impact, and after all, was originally slated to house a port.