By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
A proposed ferry service connecting the South Shore to MacDill AFB is dead or stalled in the water, at least for the time being.
Faced with selecting the latest alternative for an eastern station, Mosaic’s Big Bend Terminal just north of Apollo Beach, the Hillsborough County Commissioners ambushed ferry supporters, voting 4-3 last week to place the planning and funding of the proposed ferry under the authority of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, which provides mass transit through bus service.
Voting to transfer the controversial, long-running project proposal from the County Commission to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Aug. 7 were Democrat Les Miller and the three Republican commissioners, Stacy White, Sandra Murman, and Ken Hagan. Shocked and surprised by this latest proposal were Mariella Smith, Pat Kemp, and Kimberly Overman, all Democrats who voted no. After being on the short end of the 4-3 vote, the trio said that the turnover to HART “kills” the project. They claim HART is underfunded and is not in a position to start the ferry system any time soon.
Opposing the unique public-private ferry concept, Commissioner Murman said, “In the end, the county is not a transit agency.”Murman added that “HART is our transit agency. They receive property tax dollars. They are in a much better position to analyze the facts and research so their board can make a very important funding decision.” Murman pointed out that four members of the BOCC are on the HART board.
Commissioner Stacy White, who previously supported a Williams Park terminal site, voted for the transfer of responsibility to HART, saying “We (the BOCC) do not have the expertise to manage this project.”
Hagan opposed the “significant cost increase” associated with the proposed ferry, noting that the project is a “house of cards” (an insecure financial situation) that could wind up costing the county more than $36 million.
Ed Turanchik, an attorney for the private HMS Ferry Services, which has proposed to operate the ferry with South Swell Development, wondered out loud after the jolting decision why the BOCC suddenly went in the direction of HART.
“It was completely out of left field that the county commission said ‘no,’ move it to HART! So the question is, was this just a money grab.” Turanchik, a former county commissioner, opined after last week’s startling vote.
“We are being patient,” said Turanchik. “If the county wants to shift it (the ferry project) over, and HART wants to take it on, and the county is going to provide the funding for it, or HART, then that’s fine.” Turanchik is not sure if the commissioners are trying to get the BP oil-spill money or whether they prefer to place the proposed ferry service under the auspices of a transit agency. He anticipates further delays on the project, which has been deliberated for almost six years by the BOCC and has been on the unofficial public agenda for about 20 years
Smith said after the Aug. 7 BOCC meeting that she, Kemp, and Overman came to the Aug. 7 meeting expecting BOCC votes on the brief extension, for the eleventh time, of the public-private agreement and on the proposed new eastern terminal site near Port Redwing. Neither vote came about, only the 4-3 vote to dump the ferry proposal in HART’s lap.
“Hopefully, HART will be willing to support this mass transit ferry proposal that the BOCC is not willing to support,” said Smith.
Kemp feels that “HART does not have the resources” for the ferry project and that last week’s 4-3 vote could put the project “off forever.”
Overman was also stunned by the sudden action out of the blue, stating, “HART is a great agency, and they have great people. I would not doubt that they could step to the plate in organizing this. But how many years has it taken us to get this far?” she asked rhetorically.
Responding to the vote, HART CEO Benjamin Limmer issued a statement: “HART welcomes the vote of confidence by the BOCC to recognize that the people of Hillsborough County are looking for seamless transit options. We have said from the outset that all modes and innovations are on the table for discussion and consideration.”
Limmer added, “HART’s mission is to take people to places that enhance their lives. We look forward to understanding how water transportation can fit into a multimodal system that will serve the people of Hillsborough County.”
HART was created in 1979 to plan, finance, acquire, construct, operate, and maintain mass transit facilities and supply transportation assistance, mainly a bus service which has experienced recent bus route cuts due to financial constraints.
The board of directors of HART includes four members of the Hillsborough BOCC: Kemp, Miller, Overman and Smith. Other members from the Tampa Bay area on the HART board are Adam Harden, Richard McClain, Melanie Williams, Marvin Ray Knight, David Mechanik, John Melendez III, Kathleen Shanahan, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Gil Schisler and David Smith. The new and challenging task they assume from the county commission includes determining the long-term commitment of MacDill, the market for a regional ferry service and the appropriate level of cost-sharing by the private sector and other government agencies.