LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners voted 5-2 Sept. 21 to enter into an interlocal agreement with Hillsborough County and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa for the Cross Bay Ferry inter-city service.
Commission Chair Dave Eggers and Commissioner Kathleen Peters voted no.
The term of the agreement begins Oct. 1 and continues four years. The cost of $822,000 will be split equally between the four governments. It could be reduced if the ferry service makes money or if Florida Department of Transportation ends up contributing to the costs.
If the ferry is successful, plans call for subsidies to end in four years. But that time, it is expected to be full-time, offering rides between St. Petersburg and Tampa seven days a week.
Eggers is opposed to the agreement because he doesn’t think government money should be used to fund private enterprise. He is also frustrated that more progress hasn’t been made in the past four years.
Peters says the ferry service is more of an entertainment service and does not serve commuters, as promised before the first agreement was made four years ago. She said the ferry primarily serves St. Petersburg and is not of countywide benefit.
Other commissioners had concerns about continuing the pay for the Cross Bay Ferry when there are other ferries in the county. They also were unhappy that Pinellas was the last to be asked to renew the interlocal agreement. The contract for the ferry service is a product of talks between Hillsborough County and HMS Ferries, after the city of St. Petersburg relinquished control.
Some agree with Peters that it is more of an entertainment service and does not serve commuters since it doesn’t offer week-day trips across Tampa Bay. However, most believe that Pinellas County should have waterborne transportation.
Forward Pinellas has a subcommittee working on waterborne transportation and Pinellas Suncoast Transportation Authority is working with the Clearwater Ferry.
Federal money is coming available for waterborne transportation in the future. However, commissioners say eligibility for the money will depend on whether or not working plans or services are already in place, which is a big reason some support funding the Cross Bay Ferry.
Commissioners wanted to know who would apply for federal funding and were told it would likely be the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority.
Still, commissioners don’t want to continue to pay a subsidy for the ferry indefinitely, although most transportation services do require a subsidy to be successful. HMS Ferries has promised it can be self-sustaining by the end of the four-year interlocal agreement.
Commissioner Karen Seel wanted to make sure that Pinellas could get out of the agreement before the end of four years. County Attorney Jewel White said the commission could notify the other parties in the agreement that it wanted out by June 2022.
Seel said she wanted regular progress reports from HMS Ferry to see how it is moving toward self-sufficiency. Commissioner Pat Gerard said the county needed to stay involved and move the project forward.
“This is something we all would like to see happen,” she said. “The timing is right. Money is available.”
County Administrator Barry Burton said the county could look for sponsorships to help pay for the county’s share. No funding source has been identified since the interlocal agreement was presented after the fiscal year 2022 budget was prepared. It will have to come from reserves. He said a much discussion was needed to find future funding sources.
“There’s a lot of issues here,” he said.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.