TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioners reaffirmed their support for high-speed ferry service between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base but cautioned that recent environmental and operational questions about the project need to be answered.
Commissioners approved 7-0 continuing the county’s agreement with HMS Ferries and Southswell Development until March 1, 2016. The agreement means the county will continue studying proposed sites for the ferry terminal and boat basin.
Commissioner Ken Hagan made the motion to continue supporting the project noting that the initial proposed terminal site at the Fred and Idah Schultz Preserve has drawn opposition, most recently by Port Tampa Bay Executive Director Paul Anderson.
The port chairman said the ferry service could interfere with maritime traffic in Old Tampa Bay. Last August, Audubon of Florida opposed putting the terminal and 1,500 parking spaces on the Schultz preserve, where the state has spent $2.7 million restoring native habitat.
“Clearly there are many environmental and fiscal issues that need to be addressed,” Hagan said. “They are significant. However, I think the bottom line is that this process needs to play itself out organically.”
Commissioner Al Higginbotham said he wanted to dispel “whispering” that he opposed the project, which, if approved, would call for the county to spend $20 million on construction of the terminal and purchase of ferry boats.
Higginbotham said employees and officials at MacDill Air Force Base support the project but noted that approval is needed from the federal Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense.
Higginbotham and Commissioner Stacy White also said they need assurances that ridership numbers projected by HMS Ferries are real and that the ferry service business won’t fail.
“We’ve got to see the numbers,” Higginbotham said. “Somebody has to pay for that and it’s going to be the taxpayers.”
During the public comment period of the commission meeting, 14 people spoke in favor of the ferry service. They included representatives of the chambers of commerce in Tampa and St. Petersburg and an unusual conservative-liberal alliance of speakers, including an anti-tax activist and a Sierra Club leader.
“In my 12 years on this board, I’ve never seen such broad bipartisanship support of an initiative and particularly of a transportation project,” Hagan said.