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Future looks promising for ferry service in Tampa Bay
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Photo courtesy of CROSS-BAY FERRY
Passengers say they like riding to and from St. Petersburg and Tampa on the Cross-Bay Ferry. The pilot project ends this month.
CLEARWATER – An experiment to see if “water-borne transportation” could be successful in Tampa Bay is doing better than expected. Preliminary data on a pilot ferry project indicates that it could be a viable means of connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the future.

The Cross-Bay Ferry pilot is a collaboration between the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The intent is to help determine if passenger ferry service could be a regional transportation option.

“It’s doing something that really has never been done before – four local governments working together to benefit the region,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who spearheaded the project, told Pinellas County Commissioners March 28.

Only one ferry was included in the experiment, which began in November and continues through the end of April. It travels to and from St. Petersburg to Tampa. Thus far, the experiment is proving to be more popular with local residents than expected.

Ninety percent of passengers reside in Tampa Bay. Seventy-two percent had zip codes from Pinellas or Hillsborough counties with a 50-50 split of departures from St. Petersburg and Tampa, which Kriseman admitted was a surprise.

The passenger count from November through February was 22,596. The highest paid ridership occurred in February with 6,070 passengers.

Preliminary numbers are good in terms of operating costs, which so far have added up to $1.35 per passenger mile. Kriseman compared that cost to the ferry in King County Washington with operating costs of $2.12 per passenger mile, and PSTA with operating costs of 89 cents and HART at 90 cents. Farebox recovery, which is the revenue collected versus operating expenses, is 35 percent. The standard recovery is 20 percent, Kriseman said.

Each of the local governments chipped in $350,000 to fund the six-month pilot with no expectation of a return on their money. However, Kriseman told commissioners that as of the end of February, $54,602 in revenue was available to split between the four, so each will get back at least $13,650.

In addition, the whole region is benefiting with the economic impact estimated at $920,000 for the first four months.

Plus, people like the ferry.

More than 95 percent of respondents in a recent survey said their overall experience was very good or excellent. Approximately two-thirds said taking the ferry is what prompted them to make their trip, and about one-third said they used the ferry to take a planned trip instead of driving a vehicle. More than 80 percent said they would use the ferry again and would recommend it to a friend.

The ferry also has proven to be reliable with a 95 percent record of departing within 5 minutes of its scheduled time. Only six trips were canceled - all due to fog - and two trips were delayed for the same reason. An additional six trips were canceled due to special events. The dock in Tampa was unavailable one day, Jan. 7, during the National College Football Championship, and due to a concern that the ferry might be “captured,” the trips on Jan. 28 were canceled during the Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

Part of the pilot program involved experimenting with different types of service, including commuter service through the week, and non-commuter service on the weekend. Prices also varied with the cost now set at $5 each way.

Throughout the month of April, some trips on the ferry will be geared specifically to take fans to Tampa Bay Rays games. Rays fans that book a trip from Tampa to St. Petersburg on the ferry will receive $10 off tickets to that day's home game. Fans can present their Cross Bay Ferry ticket stub or confirmation email at the Tropicana Field Box Office to receive their discount. Visit www.c­rossb­ayfer­ry.co­m for ferry schedule or for ticket information, call 727-342-5720 or email tickets@raysbaseball.com for more information.

Kriseman has already started looking to the future. He will be seeking state and federal resources among others to fund seasonal service next year, although he would prefer a year-round ferry operation in the future.

He said it was challenging to acquire the boats and estimated it would take about two years to build one. The ferry used during the pilot normally runs from Boston to Provincetown Massachusetts May to October.

Commissioners asked if the public was being told that the ferry would be shutting down at the end of April. Kriseman said they had been trying to communicate that fact.

“I hope to hear a loud cry from the public that they want the ferry back, so DOT (Florida Department of Transportation) knows they want it,” Kriseman said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County Editor. She can be reached at webmaster@tbnweekly.com.
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