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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Editorial: Full speed ahead on ferry commuter service

A proposed commuter ferry service connecting southern Hillsborough County with MacDilll Air Force Base got a major boost this week with the announcement of a $4.8 million federal grant to help with construction costs.

The Federal Transit Administration money will be used for the brick-and-mortar work needed to get the infrastructure in place to begin offering the service, which could start as soon as 2016.

The grant, announced by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, represents the kind of federal assistance that works. In this case, the money will go toward a specific purpose that should have economic and environmental benefits. About 5,300 households in south Hillsborough County are occupied by someone who works at MacDill. A regular ferry service could take an estimated 1,250 cars off the roads during peak hours, easing congestion and reducing air-polluting emissions. It also represents the first step toward broadening the region’s transit options.

As Castor said: “Tampa’s long-term economic future will significantly benefit if we develop options for people to travel to work and home. Investing in our infrastructure is key to growing jobs in our community and remaining competitive.”

Of course, it’s early in the process, and hurdles remain. Environmental studies must be conducted, and a land swap will be necessary between Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land near Gibsonton where a ferry terminal could be located.

The project’s cost is estimated at $23 million. The private company HMS Global Maritime is offering to pay $12 million toward operating costs over the first three years but wants the county to pay the capital costs associated with building a terminal and a parking lot and buying the boats. That’s a significant investment, but the costs are modest compared with most transportation projects. Still, the county needs to remain cautious about its financial commitments and the potential environmental impacts. Taxpayers and Tampa Bay’s marine life need protecting.

But this public-private partnership looks to have an upside that justifies the attention.

According to Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner who represents HMS, the ferry could eliminate 62,000 miles from local highways every day and save those commuters the stress and time associated with driving up Interstate 75 and on the Selmon Expressway into Tampa. If successful, the service might be expanded to other parts of Tampa Bay, such as downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa.

That potential for expansion is appealing, and another reason for the county to pursue the project.

After decades of fits and starts involving transit planning in the Tampa Bay area, it is entirely possible a critical step in developing a more diverse commuter network may be done without laying track or pouring concrete.

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