High Speed Ferry Proposal Would Build Business In Apollo Beach

By Marie Gilmore

How is it possible that Tampa Bay doesn’t already have a water ferry service? It seems to make sense that transporting people and families across the Bay to either the Channelside area in Downtown Tampa and/or the St. Petersburg area makes sense both as a commuter service and also as a complement to the tourism industry in Tampa Bay.

A professional company specializing in for-profit ferry services in partnership with public transit also agrees and has partnered with a local law firm to gauge the interest of a relatively low-risk public/private investment opportunity that will give the community ferry service for the future.

The firm, Akerman Senterfitt, championed by Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner and high-speed rail and Olympic Host City supporter and HMS Global Maritime of New Albany, Indiana, hosted a one-day blitz of public meetings and media releases to inform the community of its intentions to build.

The plan, already supported by the area’s largest employer, the MacDill Air Force Base, is to take the more than 3,700 service members who live in S.E. Hillsborough County and get a portion of them off the roads, and to deliver them to work on the base in 15 minutes from an Apollo Beach hub. The service would be limited access to active service members and employees during commuter hours, Monday-Friday 9-11 a.m. and 3-6 p.m. and then the port, the ticket office and the ferries would be available for other routes and charters to be determined, once service is under way.

In fact, HMS is so confident this is a good idea, it is willing to absorb all operational costs and create a profit-share program with the county in order to get it off the ground.

The catch, it would like $24 million in local funding in order to get the ports and ticket office buildings built and buy the ferries. From that point, after construction to its specs, based on its weather-proof ferries, the county would be risk-free and the company would be responsible for service, maintenance, marketing, ticket sales and upkeep. If HMS ever decided it wasn’t working, it walks away and the county owns the ferries, the parking lots, the docks and all infrastructures.

“I have been working on public transportation plans for a long time,” described Turanchik. “And this private sector partnership is an incredible transportation option for Hillsborough County.”

Greg Dronkert, President HMS Ferries, Inc. said, “This area is primed and ready to go; there is a body of water that connects communities and a constant population of people to move.”

HMS operates major ferry programs around the country, including the Statue of Liberty Ferries, the Alcatraz Island Ferries and soon the Niagara Falls ferries.

“We operate ferry vessels for private and government entities including the National Parks Service,” he described.

Mark Fernandez, head of Special Projects based in Jacksonville said, “We have an operation here that makes sense.”

What it needs is parking for up to 1,000 cars, a secured dock with admin and ticket offices, and roadway improvements to and from the dock. At MacDill, trams will await the ferry arrivals to take service personal to their offices.

“We will require no local or state operating subsidies and this project will result in the redevelopment of the Gibsonton/Apollo Beach area, resulting in millions of dollars in new tax revenues,” he described.

After a presentation at the Tampa Bay Times Forum with representatives from local county and Chamber organizations, and meetings with residents in St. Petersburg and then at the Landing in Waterset in Apollo Beach, Turanchik added,

“Our roadway network is hopelessly overstretched and one great opportunity to alleviate that is the ferry. This is a transportation investment that actually takes cars off the roads and helps South County develop in a way that is more livable and less congested.”

Ruskin Community Plan volunteer and resident environmentalist, Mariella Smith, spoke on behalf of the group in Tampa and attended the meeting in Apollo Beach and said, “I worked on many transportation plans and I am thrilled to see that part of our community plan to connect town centers and to see a mass transit program that focuses on South Hillsborough County.” Smith, who  won a citizens award for her community transportation planning efforts from the American Planning Association added, “This is an opportunity for South Shore to pull in literally a ‘boat load’ of people.”

For more information on the Tampa Bay High-Speed Ferry, contact Marlisa Serrano, Media Relations, Akerman Senterfitt, at 305-374-5600 or visit www.tampabayhighspeedferry.com.