Hillsborough commissioner pushes for permanent ferry service

- Joan Routt and Nancy Height were all smiles as the Cross-Bay Ferry docked in Tampa Wednesday afternoon.

"Oh, I enjoyed it. I love boating," said Routt. "It was my first trip today."

The only traffic on the trip to St. Pete was marine life.

"We saw dolphins out there today, too!" exclaimed Height. "It went fast. It was really rough out there today and we really didn't feel that much of the waves."

We are now in the final stretch of the six-month Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project. April 30 will be its final run. Currently, the Cross-Bay Ferry only stops near the Tampa Convention Center and in downtown St. Pete.

Between November and April, the ferry carried more than 31,000 passengers. According to Cross-Bay Ferry officials, more than 90 percent of riders were residents, not tourists.

With growing ridership, Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan is proposing a more permanent ferry system with HMS Ferries/South Swell. The proposal would connect several more locations in Tampa Bay.

"From south shore to MacDill, from Tampa to St. Pete," Hagan explained. "We would pay a fee up front and lock in a long-term operational and capital agreement for 15-20 years that again places all the costs and all of the risks and burden on the private sector and protects the taxpayers."

The plan would also include construction of multiple marinas that would support the ferries and also be open for public use. The plan got plenty of support from commissioners at Wednesday's meeting.

"It could be a very lucrative venture where we could very easily double or triple our investment," said Commissioner Victor Crist.

"It does create jobs. Very important. Good for the environment. Tourism," added Commissioner Sandy Murman. "There is a very strong business case to move forward with the ferry project."

Despite all the agreement, there was one area of disagreement: how to pay for it. Hagan initially proposed using the county's $22 million dollar BP oil spill settlement. Commissioner Les Miller, Jr. felt that money should be focused on environment issues.

"I don't think that's the proper way to go," said Commissioner Les Miller, Jr. "Those dollars came to us because of the destruction that was done on the environment. Our parks people utilize constantly, that's what that money should be used for."

Those who support the plan argue the environment does play a role. "It gets cars off of the road and it gets emissions out of our air and the possibilities of a marina could be economic as well," said Crist.

The commission agreed that if the project moves forward, it would not just utilize BP money, but federal funds as well.

From here, Hagan said a consultant will review the feasibility of building marinas and where potential locations will be. Meanwhile, county staff members will negotiate with HMS in hopes of reaching a long-term agreement to consider.

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