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Hillsborough commissioners approve funds to accelerate commuter ferry project to MacDill

The new ferry boat will run primarily from Gibsonton in southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base.

TAMPA, Fla. — Visions of a regular water commute are becoming closer to reality for some people living around Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday voted in favor of putting $252,000 toward engineering and planning assessments for the proposed ferry between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base.

Commissioners were already planning to allocate the money for this reason next quarter but because the engineering firm is working ahead of schedule, the money is needed now to continue the pace without pause.

During a presentation by Kimley-Horn, the engineering firm behind the project, a map overview of the project revealed the long-term plans for the Tampa Bay ferry.

Credit: Kimley-Horn

Currently, the Cross Bay Ferry runs from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa on a seasonal basis from late fall to early spring. In October 2021, the ferry kicked off its fifth season by breaking a record with 2,182 passengers in an opening weekend.

At Wednesday's commissioner meeting, Dawn Dodge with Kimley-Horn said the ferry's popularity amounted in a reward saying, "In fact so successful that the community was awarded a federal grant for nearly $5 million to acquire nearly a 350-passenger vessel."

Plans to expand the ferry service are now underway with a goal of offering a commuter ferry between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base while also being part of the intercity service with stops in downtown St. Pete and Tampa.

Commissioner Mariella Smith said residents in Sun City Center were excited by the plans.

"They could then ride the ferry to St. Pete, to Tampa and back, nights and weekends for dinner, to see a show, a sporting event," Smith said.

Commissioner Harry Cohen pointed out that offering an alternate way for MacDill workers to get to work will alleviate traffic congestion all around South Tampa.

The firm presented the results of a recent survey to the board, noting the long commutes many MacDill AFB workers have from south Hillsborough County.

Credit: Kimley-Horn

Board Chair Kimberly Overman noted the housing crisis is causing more families to live further and further away from the base, saying, "That is not OK. When it comes to our national security, looking at this and being able to address that we have a 500-family wait list for people who have orders to be here, that have to find housing that we don’t have."

The presentation included projected milestones for the project, which include having the new 350-passenger ferry in use between Tampa and St. Pete by March 2024. The ferry terminal in Gibsonton is expected to be completed by April 2025 and begin intercity service between Tampa and St. Petersburg. The MacDill AFB terminal and the start of commuter service are projected for June 2025.

Paying for the ferry has been a long debate with several agencies and local governments playing a role. In July, a new agreement was reached with Pinellas county paying a lower subsidy for ferry operation.

It's unclear exactly what would be funded by local taxpayers as opposed to grant money and federal and state programs.

Commissioner Ken Hagan continues to be against the commuter expansion.

"I fully support the intercity ferry service however I firmly believe the commuter ferry is not a transit project and will be a financial boondoggle that will remove very few vehicles from the road," Hagan said.

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