Water ferry grant sought

Hillsborough will seek $1.2-million to study the proposal.

Published January 4, 2008

TAMPA - Hillsborough County commissioners have not been known in recent years for embracing mass transit.

They routinely question county bus agency decisions and have thwarted efforts to expand a trolley line into downtown. They also killed a proposal to build a rail system in Hillsborough.

But that didn't stop the current group of commissioners from voting unanimously Thursday to seek up to $1.2-million in federal grant money to study the possibility of creating a water ferry service for Tampa Bay.

"We're one of the most unique counties in the world to be able to pursue this," said Commissioner Jim Norman, speaking of the abundant shoreline in the region. "If you look around the world, there's not too many communities that have this opportunity."

If successful, the county would likely need to secure matching money in the form of local or state tax dollars. Commissioners Brian Blair, Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita made it clear Thursday their votes were no commitment to provide that money.

In other words, Tampa Bay is a long way from selling ferry tickets.

Private companies' attempts to launch a St. Petersburg-to-Tampa water taxi as a business venture have foundered. Local transportation officials think it would likely have to be a taxpayer-subsidized public service.

"We studied it, and it looked like it was doable, but it appeared it would require a subsidy to make it work," said Pinellas County's planning director Brian Smith. "It's hard to make it break even. That's the way it is with all transit."

Hillsborough wants to do a more in-depth study, examining whether a ferry could succeed, how much it would cost, where it would dock, whether it would carry pedestrians or cars, and whether it would be used mostly by commuters or sightseers.