Fast ferry concept gains momentum in Tampa Bay

Can you see yourself commuting across the Tampa Bay area not on interstates or toll roads, but actually across the Bay -- as in on the water? 

If Ed Turanchik and other local thought leaders spearheading the Tampa Bay High Speed Ferry Project succeed, that could very well be a reality for residents of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties before the end of this decade. 

The vision for re-creating local ferry services contains elements of our collective past. In the early decades of the 20th century, before the first incarnation of the Gandy Bridge connected Hillsborough and Pinellas starting in 1924, Independent Steamship Company ran vessels between Tampa and St. Petersburg; later, the Bee Line Ferry took people and their cars from Piney Point in northern Manatee County to St. Petersburg before the opening of the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge in 1954.  

Fast forward to the 21st century, when commuters on clogged Tampa Bay highways increasingly experience roadway gridlock and are looking for a variety of creative solutions. 

“There’s widespread support for a ferry,” says Turanchik, an attorney and a former Hillsborough County Commissioner who now specializes in government affairs and public policy at the Akerman law firm in downtown Tampa.

“The proposed fast ferry focuses on commuter service between South Hillsborough County and MacDill using high-speed catamaran passenger vessels that can go 30 miles per hour,” Turanchik explains. “The ferries could also be used during evenings and weekends for service between Tampa and St. Petersburg.” 

If implemented, the ferry service initially could transport 2,400 people each day, taking more than 1,000 cars off local roads and cutting in half the commute time between South Hillsborough County (Riverview, Apollo Beach, Ruskin) and MacDill Air Force Base in South Tampa, from an hour down to between 20 and 30 minutes. The initiative, which is projected to cost $24 million to start, could be expanded to service other areas if ridership exceeds expectations.  

Turanchik says there are differences in opinion about where ferry facilities should be located, especially in environmentally sensitive South Hillsborough County, where manatees congregate during the cooler winter months, but there is some consensus on one potential location.

“The vast majority of people believe that a facility at Schultz Preserve would be the best place because that would also create a waterfront recreational park.” 

Turanchik believes that adding a ferry route originating from southern Hillsborough County would do much more than serve as a commuter service – it could also stimulate urban eco-tourism and offer locals and tourists a new way to see the bay. 

“We could market Tampa Bay as a place where you could stay downtown, go to [sports] games, museums and dine, as well as go fishing and bird watching without using a car,” he says. “It would be a whole new offering for Tampa Bay.” 

Anna Maria Island also considers ferry

To the south on Anna Maria Island near Bradenton in Manatee County, initial plans for a ferry service connecting the mainland and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County are progressing. 

“Anna Maria Island is a beautiful place that tourists love visiting, but we do have some traffic during the busy season,” says Deb Wing, VP of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce. “Our goal with a ferry service is to reduce congestion on the roads.” 

She says the ferry proposal is currently in a “logistical planning” phase. “We need to decide exactly where the ferry would leave and arrive, and whether or not we would need to involve trolley services to and from those points.” For example, one hypothetical ferry disembark and arrival point would be at the end of City Pier, on the north side of the island. However, Wing says that while City Pier offers existing parking and other infrastructure, other logistical matters, such as whether more restrooms would need to be constructed nearby, would have to be addressed.

Additional prospects

Back to the north in Tampa, Josh and Anndrea Dohring at eBoats Tampa already offer locals and tourists unique views of the bay with their electric boat service. While the owners say eBoats Tampa serves as many as 100 people per day, mainly those who seek eco-tourism opportunities or a picturesque way to get around downtown Tampa, expanding their commuter potential is something they are considering. 

“The commuter aspect is something we continue to watch as the market improves and more locations for stops and connections become viable, especially since we are permitted for taxi services,” says Josh Dohring. “As the development continues on the waterfront, so, too, will that need become more pressing.” 

He says the routes offered at eBoats are dictated by safe operating areas and that docking opportunities are dependent on public and private owners allowing access to the water, and there is a demand for a greater number of access points especially during the weekend. Dohring says he’s happy to see support from local leadership for expanding waterway service. “I think there’s such a demand and momentum that we really have a chance for it to be fast-tracked.” 

Tampa to Cuba ferry

Tampa’s fledgling ferry industry may also pick up steam if diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba continue warming. Talk of a Tampa-Cuba ferry has been in the air for months, though Andy Fobes, PR Director at Port Tampa Bay, says he knows of no official proposals submitted for a ferry service linking the two. 

A U.S. trade embargo has been in place against Cuba since 1960, one year after Fidel Castro assumed control of the island nation, and Fobes said permits allowing ferries between Tampa and Cuba would have to be granted by the U.S. Treasury Department with cooperation from the Cuban government. However, Fobes suggests Tampa’s port would make an ideal location for such a ferry service if it comes to fruition. 

“Port Tampa Bay is well suited geographically to serve as a ferry port, when and if full approval is granted by both countries, for this type of service for the tourist market,” Fobes says. “Port Tampa Bay has existing cruise terminal facilities in place, which includes Customs operations.”  

It may take a political movement on a national level before tourists and families in Tampa can hop aboard vessels heading for the tropical climes of Cuba. However, Turanchik suggests local residents and businesses hold the key to creating an atmosphere where domestic ferry services can receive the necessary start-up funding and support to really take off. 

“I think people should just let local and state officials know to ‘get it going!’,” he says.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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