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Hillsborough commissioners sink MacDill ferry partnership

Veronica Brezina

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The Cross Bay Ferry docked at St. Petersburg's North Yacht Basin. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

A public-private partnership that would support the expansion of the Cross Bay Ferry service to serve southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base is no longer on the table. 

During a Wednesday Hillsborough County Commission meeting, the commissioners cast a 5-2 vote to terminate the partnership agreement for the planned ferry service due to the escalated $76 million price tag. The final vote comes weeks after commissioners discussed potentially nixing the agreement with operator HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group. 

Per the agreement, fertilizer giant Mosaic would have provided the waterfront land for the Hillsborough terminal, and the county would have to absorb the initial capital construction costs. 

Commissioner Joshua Wostal, who made the motion to terminate the agreement, said the decision is not “killing the ferry project,” as HMS can continue to work with its partners to build the needed infrastructure and the project could be subsidized. 

“I suggest they pursue both of these mechanisms and show it’s sustainable and come back to the board,” Wostal said. 

According to filed documents, Hillsborough County retains the sole authority and discretion to terminate the agreement at any time with or without cause, and without penalty. 

“I like it [the proposed ferry service]. The problem is that, at this point, it’s a luxury we cannot afford,” said Commissioner Michael Owen. He cited the $1 billion-plus of unfunded road improvements, explaining it should take priority over the ferry service. 

Commissioner Pat Kemp, a longtime advocate of the ferry, argued that the cost burden on the county could be “something widely covered by grants” and that residents in Hillsborough County, which make up the largest veteran population in the state, need more transit options to get to the Air Force base. 

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor also previously urged the commissioners to not terminate the agreement. 

The expanded service for the Cross Bay Ferry, first proposed in 2013, would have bumped ridership by 90% with a larger vessel and additional trips during off-peak hours, according to a report from engineering and design consultants Kimley-Horn. 

Tanya Dorian, CEO of the Tampa Bay Ferry Alliance, recently said she was “cautiously hopeful” that elected officials will realize the benefits outweigh the escalating price tag. She noted that HMS Ferries agreed to cover the $175 million operating and maintenance costs over 20 years.

“That is the high-dollar ticket that is concerning with adding new lines of transit,” Dorian said. “And the beautiful thing about this project, and I just want to scream it from the top of a building, is that … HMS Ferries is willing to take on the operational risk. They’re just looking for the initial infrastructure and build.”

Seasonal service between downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa began in 2016 with one Boston-based ship and crew, ferrying over 300,000 passengers. The new plans call for four vessels – with one able to hold 350 people.

The other three would have room for up to 149 riders. Daily trips would increase from 13 to 18, causing capacity to soar from 1,937 to 3,687.

The 2023 season ran from October 2022 to May and served over 72,000 passengers – setting a new record. 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    John

    August 3, 2023at8:36 am

    Transportation continues to be this regions biggest issue. Instead of funding the project and bringing additional options for our Vets and Military that live local, HCBCC shoots this down.

    Thankfully the Ferry will still exist between St Pete and Tampa, but what a golden opportunity to expand the project, that’s shut down before it can even be started.

    More thankful today for the leadership that we have in St Pete.

  2. Avatar

    judy too

    August 2, 2023at10:18 pm

    Finally some rational decisions in Hillsborough.

  3. Avatar

    jvo

    August 2, 2023at6:28 pm

    yup, it’s not a car with one person driving…. how could that ever be wither feasible or responsible?

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