Hillsborough County Commissioners (from left), Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith, update residents on a proposed ferry service between SouthShore and MacDill AFB.

By Brad Stager

Providing more transportation options to link major job, residential and entertainment hubs is a topic that comes up among politicians and civic groups when charting a course for fast-growing regions like Hillsborough County’s SouthShore area.

A commuter ferry service connecting South Hillsborough County’s large military-related population of service members and civilian workers with MacDill Air Force Base has been under consideration for several years but has been impeded by funding and environmental concerns.

An offer by phosphate producer Mosaic of land at its Big Bend Marine Terminal just north of Big Bend Rd. at ‘little to no cost,’ according to Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, may help the project get under way.

Kemp, along with Hillsborough County Commissioners Mariella Smith and Kimberly Overman, provided an update about the ferry plans during a town hall meeting in Brandon.

As presented at the meeting, the price to Hillsborough County for implementing the ferry commuter service is expected to be about $38 million in capital costs, including the purchase of boats and infrastructure construction. Advocates suggest using money from the BP oil spill settlement, county transportation tax dollars and funding available from the Florida Department of Transportation to pay for it.

A partnership between the operator of the existing Cross Bay Ferry seasonal service between Tampa and St. Petersburg, HMS Ferries, Inc. and South Swell Development Group, LLC would cover operating costs of about $100 million for 20 years.

Commuters between the SouthShore area and MacDill AFB could make the journey in 15 minutes, as compared to the current average of about 45 minutes and longer during peak travel times. Each ferry would carry 150 passengers per trip.

Supporters say the service could be expanded to operate during off-peak commuting hours and on weekends.

Increasing transportation options in southeast Hillsborough County appeals to Wimauma resident Fran Bodman, one of a few dozen attendees at the meeting.

“Wimauma and the whole area needs this so people have more access to jobs,” she said.

According to the ferry plan, which needs approval by the Board of County Commissioners, the service would begin in 2022.