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Hillsborough commission pulls out of MacDill ferry plans, citing new transit sales tax hike

TAMPA — Just two days after Hillsborough voters approved a transportation sales tax, the County Commission has dealt a potentially fatal blow to plans for a MacDill Air Force Base passenger ferry service that have been in the works for five years.

The commission voted 6-1 Thursday to cancel its public-private partnership with ferry company HMS Global Maritime and the South Swell development group after learning that the costs of docks, boats and parking at a south county terminal may be as much as $30 million.

With the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority in line to get an extra $124 million per year from the sales tax, commissioners said it makes more sense for the county’s bus agency to pick up the tab.

"To continue this project would be throwing good money after bad," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "This is a transit project. If it proceeds it should be under the purview of HART."

But there is no guarantee that HART will pick up the project. Its 14-member governing board includes three of the commissioners who pulled the plug on the county ferry: Les Miller, Stacy White and Sandy Murman.

The U-turn came during the commission’s final full meeting before two newly elected Democratic commissioners are sworn in later this month, ending a 14-year GOP majority on the board.

RELATED: Democrats headed toward control of Hillsborough commission for first time since 2004

Ed Turanchik, a Tampa mayoral candidate and attorney for HMS, scrambled to get to the meeting after hearing of the vote. He urged commissioners to change their mind.

"This is an official partnership that, without notice, you just terminated," he said. "You’re in the middle of a project that is widely popular, that can do a great amount of benefit."

Commissioners did not respond to him. After the meeting, he said the decision was a political one.

"A lame duck board did it without notice to anybody including their private partners," Turanchik said. "This is as bad as government can be."

First proposed in 2013, the ferry was intended to provide a low-cost, fast and congestion-proof commuter service for about 8,000 MacDill Air Force Base employees who live in south county.

But concerns about the environmental impact of a terminal and where to build it led to years of delays and setbacks.

In 2017, the project got a major boost when the county set aside $22 million from BP settlement money to pay for docks, boats and other costs.

And as recently as Sept. 20, commissioners unanimously approved giving another $774,000 to HMS and South Swell toward a site study and ridership projection report it was required to produce by January.

A report from an AECOM consultant on Wednesday proved the last straw for the ferry service. In addition to the extra cost, the county would likely have to buy land for a south county terminal, commissioners learned.

The most likely site, the Fred and Idah Shultz Nature Preserve, is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The agency has indicated it would expect a land swap and a purchase agreement.

And earlier this year, the project lost out on a $4.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority because it could not meet a construction deadline.

PREVIOUS: Ferry project waves goodbye to $4.7 million grant

Miller, the only Democrat to vote for scrapping the project, said he is still waiting for a ridership study that would show how many cars the ferry would take off the road and proof that the Department of Defense will allow a ferry at a military base.

"Five years we’ve been working on this project," he said. "My questions have not been answered."

Hillsborough’s decision does not affect the six-month ferry service linking the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa that resumed Nov. 1.

But it does raise concerns whether Tampa Bay will graduate to anything beyond a winter-only service aimed at daytrippers. The MacDill service was slated to include commuter service to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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