CLEARWATER — St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman wants Pinellas County to contribute $149,182 to pay for another season of ferry service between St. Petersburg and Tampa. He made a formal request for funding during an Aug. 6 meeting.
He is asking for the same sum from the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County. If all the partners say yes, Tampa Bay will have a third season of ferry service between the two counties.
It was a first-of-its-kind partnership when the four governments agreed to fund the ferry in 2016, with each contributing $350,000 to explore the feasibility of a high-speed ferry as a transportation alternative for residents, commuters and tourists.
The Cross Bay Ferry pilot ran from Nov. 1, 2016-April 30, 2017. Despite what some considered as a successful pilot, lack of funding and other issues prevented the ferry from returning the next season.
Then the city of St. Petersburg received a grant from Florida Department of Transportation to help pay expenses to run the ferry and the partners agreed to chip in a share to run the service for six months in 2018-2019.
Kriseman and the city of St. Petersburg have led the effort since 2016 to charter ferries that operate in New England during summer months to run in Tampa Bay during the winter months from HMS Ferries, headquartered in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
Kriseman needs an answer from the four partners this month so he can sign the contract with HMS and reserve a ferry for the coming season.
The ferry has proved to be popular, especially among residents, according to statistics that show more than 40,000 passengers used it during its initial season. During the second season, which ran from Nov. 1, 2018-April 30, 2019, more than 52,000 passengers rode across Tampa Bay on the ferry, an increase of 12,000 passengers over the pilot run. The most-ever paid riders, 12,289, used the ferry in March 2019.
Kriseman, who has championed the ferry since its inception, believes it will continue to be popular in the coming season.
“The biggest complaint,” he said, talking about the last season, “was that the boat was sold out and people couldn’t get a ride.”
Commissioner Janet Long attested to that fact, saying she tried twice to get a ferry ticket but was unable to do so because it was sold out.
When the ferry was first proposed, officials thought it would be a popular tourist attraction, as well as a potential transportation alternative for residents. The first season, the ferry ran early in the morning so people could use it to get to work, but hours to return home were more variable.
The second season, hours for commuters were eliminated because with only one boat, it was difficult to provide the reliability needed for residents going to and from work. Instead, the plan was to cater to those wanting to travel between Pinellas and Hillsborough at night and on the weekends. Trips also were planned around Tampa Bay Ray’s and Lightning games.
Most of the people who used the ferry were residents of Hillsborough or Pinellas counties with the majority hailing from St. Petersburg or Hillsborough County. Surprisingly, the ferry wasn’t a big draw for tourists, Kriseman said.
According to a passenger survey, the destination of 80% of ferry riders was a restaurant and 37% rode it to visit a museum. Another 31% went shopping and 20% attended a sporting event. About 75% said they spent at least $25 a person when they reached their destination with 30% spending more than $40 a person.
Estimated economic impact from the ferry was about $1.5 million, Kriseman said.
In terms of value as an alternative means of transportation, about 60% of those surveyed said they probably wouldn’t have taken the trip without the ferry service and another 40% said they used the ferry to take a planned trip instead of their personal vehicle.
Kriseman said people have indicated that the most important aspects of ferry service are frequency, reliability and cost, not amenities, such as Wi-Fi.
Thus far, funding has only been sufficient to pay for one boat; however, the hope is that someday money will be available to pay for at least two offering full time service, not just weekends and nights.
Kriseman is asking the partners to commit to two years of funding instead of just one. He wants $149,182 this year and $136,881 for next year, which equals $286,063 for the two-year commitment.
Kriseman doesn’t expect the ferry service will generate more than $400,000, so a revenue split is not expected; however, if more money does comes in, it would be split equally between all the partners.
Commissioners discussed ways to get more tourists to use the ferry. Commission Chair Karen Seel, who also chairs the Tourist Development Council, said she would talk to the TDC about doing more to market all the ferry services in the county.
Commissioner Dave Eggers noted that people living in northern parts of the county weren’t using the ferry. He has objected to using county funds for the venture since the pilot was proposed. He prefers a private model with no government subsidy.
Kriseman said he hopes to see ridership increase so the government’s subsidy could be reduced. Eggers prefers that private owners take the risk of investment instead of government.
Kriseman’s request has been added to next year’s proposed budget; however, commissioners did not vote on the request. Even if commissioners say yes to two years of funding, next year’s appropriation will have to be approved as part of the regular budget process.
Funding for the ferry is on the commission’s Aug. 20 agenda.
Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.