Federal dollars are flowing south to buoy a proposed water ferry between Gibsonton and MacDill Air Force Base meant to alleviate highway congestion.
The Tampa Bay area will receive $4.8 million from the Federal Transit Administration to use for brick and mortar work on the ferry service, tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2016. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, applied for the federal money and must sign off on the design and engineering for the ferry project.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor D-Tampa/St. Petersburg, announced the grant in a press release on Monday. The money comes from a discretionary grant program specifically for passenger ferries, said Castor’s press secretary, Marcia Mejia.
“Tampa’s long-term economic future will significantly benefit if we develop options for people to travel to work and home,” Castor said in her press release. “Investing in our infrastructure is key to growing jobs in our community and remaining competitive.”
“That’s really big news. That is one-sixth of the funds available for this type of program in the entire country,” said Attorney Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner repesenting HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group in its effort to partner with the county on this project. He said Congress had previously earmarked $475,000 toward the project and HMS, one of the private partners in this public-private venture, has pledged $12 million to cover the first three years in operational costs.
In all, the ferry project is expected to cost $22 million to $23 million, Turanchik said. He estimates that the ferry operation will take 62,081 miles a day off of local highways and save commuters time on trips to and from work.
“It’s pretty amazing we got this money,” Turanchik said. “I give credit to (County Administrator) Mike Merrill for being aggressive about this. We are really early in the project, but this being a public-private partnership makes it very competitive.”
Turanchik has pitched the ferry project as a low-cost transportation option that would also benefit the local economy and the environment. He said studies for the project show that of the 7,800 or so military and related MacDill employees in southeastern Hillsborough County, about 1,500 would use the ferry service each day.
High-speed boats would shuttle commuters back and forth between Gibsonton and the base, where they would ride trams to their employment locations on the base.
The partners on the project met last week with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a pre-permit application meeting, also attended by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“There is a whole review of marine mammals and game fish that will have to be done as part of the Corps permitting process, which we have not yet started.” Already, he said, the partners have been notified that they must address the fact that a good number of endangered Florida manatees use the Gibsonton area of Tampa Bay where the ferry terminal would be constructed.
“We talked a lot about manatees and the impact,” Turanchik said. “We talked about sea turtles and fish habitat. Those are all standard issues.” He said it would likely be months before they go back to the Corps seeking the project permit.
“We need to make sure there are no land mines,” Turanchik said, referring to a number of “contingencies” the partners must address in conjunction with the ferry project, including MacDill access, port access and a land swap between Hillsborough County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Both agencies paid for the land where the ferry terminal will be constructed, at one end of the Schultz Nature Preserve.
Merrill has said that the county and its development team will be ready to get into “the nitty gritty of... how the ferry would operate” once those preconditions are addressed.