High speed ferry service may be in Tampa's transit future

05/22/13 Janelle Irwin
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Traffic congestion in Tampa is among the worst in the nation. That’s one reason why former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik is pushing for expanded transit using high speed ferries. During the first of three presentations on the issue Wednesday, Turanchik said the boats would initially serve people who commute from southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base.

“There is no other transportation option that can do so much for so little so fast with so much private investment and that is so cool and if people say, ‘let’s go do it’ it will happen.”

The ferry service would be run by one of Turanchik’s clients, the private company HMS Ferries. Turanchik has engaged in talks with the Hillsborough County Commission and other local governments about funding between $11 and $16 million in capital investment. That would likely include two 300-passenger high speed ferries, trams to get riders to and from the boats and construction to make it all happen.

“On the easiest scenario – the $11 million scenario – 70% or more of that [are] things you could sell off. So, the public sector could be really at - risk is really minimized; investment minimized – if they bonded the $15 million, the cost would be $1.5 million a year, HMS would be spending $3.5 million a year. So, if everything didn’t work out as you thought, well the public gets to keep the things it owns and HMS would be stuck with the losses.”

Turanchik claims taxpayers would not be on the hook for subsidies because HMS Ferries would absorb the operational costs. Greg Dronkert is the company’s president.

“As we looked at this, the population density in Hillsborough County is not as dense as we would normally be looking for a viable, self-sustaining ferry service. But the fact that this is captured market, if you will, that there’s an identifiable group of riders, there’s identifiable demand and as we investigated this with the command structure at MacDill, that are likely to convert over to the ferry, makes the likelihood of a sufficient number of those riders to come over to pay the operating costs very high.”

Dronkert said it’s also a plus that people who work at MacDill commute at relatively consistent times. That would mean his company could run ferry service from the Big Bend area of Hillsborough County to the Air Force Base during the early morning and evening hours. Mid-days would be left open for future expansion to include service between St. Pete and Tampa and downtown Tampa.

“We look at public participation and public interest in projects. Other key issues are how you link to your upland connections, your established transit routes. One of the key things we found on this project was many of those elements were there.”

There is more than $400,000 of federal money to help the county fund the capital costs of implementing a ferry route. HMS Ferries would also ask the state to kick in some funding. But ultimately Hillsborough County would have to give the project the green light. Republican County Commissioner Sandy Murman said the proposal couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Today we kick off our transportation initiatives discussions with all the elected leaders here in the community and try to come up with those alternatives and get those solutions on the table.”

Hillsborough County Commissioners are set to look at future transit options that align with a proposal in Pinellas County that could include a light rail connection along the Howard Frankland Bridge when part of it is replaced around 2025. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn praised the idea of ferry service as a way to boost transit options in the region.

“Mobility options have been something that we all know that we have been lagging behind for years. I mean, we’ve talked about it. Every time we do a corporate relocation our mobility options come up on the short end of the list. It is something that we have suffered from for decades and I think this provides us with an opportunity to cure a portion of that.”

If ferry service is implemented between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base, HMS Ferries estimates that would take about 1500 cars off the road. HMS president, Dronkert, said his company would run the ferries as efficiently as possible and could even use boats that used alternative energy sources.

“We’ve gone ahead and launched a number of projects with hybrid technology, meaning that we use alternative sources to drive the propulsion system. Usually it’s a diesel-electric system, but our company – if you looked at Hornblower Hybrid, you’d see three projects that we’ve stood up in the last few years that were hybrid vessels.”

The boats the company is considering for this project are about 85 feet long and can travel up to 35 knots. Dronkert said the operators don’t usually push the ferries to their maximum speed though because it uses too much fuel while not making that big of a difference in commute time. Travel between the Big Bend area and MacDill by ferry is expected to take between 20 and 30 minutes. That commute currently takes drivers about an hour.

Member of Congress Kathy Castor came out in support of the potential public-private partnership after the presentation.

Member of Congress Kathy Castor supports high speed ferries in Tampa

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