Pinellas County Commission undecided on funding for Cross Bay Ferry

Funding from Pinellas County for future years of service remains up in the air. A final decision is expected on Sept. 21, nine days before the ferry is scheduled to begin making its trips between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

LARGO — Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 24 to delay a vote on a four-year interlocal agreement to fund the Cross Bay Ferry until Sept. 21.

Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg have already passed their agreements, which was part of the problem as discussed during an Aug. 19 work session. Pinellas Commissioners were displeased that organizers were so late in bringing them into the discussion and seemed to automatically expect them to approve the agreement.

In addition, Hillsborough County had finalized an operating plan and agreement with HMS Ferries on June 16 with no input from Pinellas County although that agreement is subject to approval of the interlocal funding.

Commissioner Charlie Justice was upset because he learned about the agreement by reading the newspaper. County Administrator Barry Burton said he wasn’t aware that Pinellas would be asked for funding, so it had not been included in next year’s budget.

Commissioner Janet Long said waterborne transportation, including the Cross Bay Ferry, should be a regional discussion and should be included in the work being done by a Forward Pinellas subcommittee. She wasn’t happy that organizers had come to Pinellas as an “11th hour funding source” when a long-term source was needed.

Burton also was concerned about the potential for a long-term subsidy.

A decision needed to be made by the end of September as service is scheduled to begin on Oct. 1.

The plan is to operate the ferry for eight months this year, and then increase service for an additional month each year until it is full-time by fiscal year 2025.

Each member government, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and Tampa and St. Petersburg, was asked to pay an equal share each year, starting with $175,000 in fiscal year 2022, $190,000 in FY 2023, $202,500 in FY 2024 and $255,000 in FY 2025.

Commissioners pointed out that the majority of riders, 33%, came from St. Petersburg with 29% from Tampa. Another 20% were from out-of-state and 18% were from other locations in Florida. They said the ferry was more of an entertainment operation, not a commuter option as it was presented before the pilot launched in 2017.

In addition, plans call for the ferry to offer service on the weekend only with 32 trips a week required.

Commissioner Pat Gerard reminded the commission that the first round on funding in 2017 had come from BP settlement money and everyone thought it would be a one-time deal. But instead, the commission had been asked for funding every year since.

She said ridership numbers were so low that it was “a ridiculous waste of money.” She said she would vote against the interlocal.

“It’s never going to be a commuter transit thing,” she said, adding that she would be willing to look at it again as a tourist attraction with money coming from the Tourist Development Council for marketing.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters agreed, as did Commissioner Karen Seel.

Long agreed with most of what Gerard said, except she believes it has the potential to be part of a waterborne commuter service in the future.

“This is music to my ears,” said Commission Chair Dave Eggers. “I’ve been against it from the beginning.”

Eggers doesn’t believe that taxpayer money should be used to fund private enterprise.

At the end of the Aug. 19 work session, it seemed the majority would vote no for the agreement during the regular meeting on Aug. 24.

However, over the weekend, the ferry’s supporters got to work, making phone calls and sending emails, the majority from St. Petersburg, to commissioners arguing their case. The supporters made somewhat of a difference with some commissioners, who said they would be willing to fund the ferry for one year, but not four.

Peters and Eggers remained firmly against any funding. However, the consensus from the rest was that more information was needed and they wanted assurances that communication would be improved. Eggers said it would be fair to delay the vote to allow residents who had believed the deal was dead to have a chance to voice their opinions.

Matthew Miller of Miami and president of HMS Ferries conceded that the commission had a number of legitimate concerns in part due to a bad job of communication. He assured the commission that no subsidy would be required after FY 2025 in part due to a potential agreement with Hillsborough County for service to MacDill Air Force Base.

Justice is still angry about the lack of communication from the partners. He is worried that the mass emails that went out over the weekend created a false expectation as the writers seemed to believe there would be seven-day ferry service. But, he said he was willing to consider funding for one more year.

Seel said if she decided to vote to fund the ferry another year, it would then have to go to Forward Pinellas and its waterborne transportation subcommittee. She said she wanted to look at all the ferries in the area, including all the others that operate privately and would “love to have funding.”

County Attorney Jewel White said the commission could either approve a one-year agreement or go with one for four years and then terminate it by giving notice by June. Another alternative would be to approve the agreement as is and give notice of the intent to terminate.

One concern that makes commissioners more willing to approve the ferry for another year is the possibility of federal funding. Long pointed out that the new federal infrastructure package has a great deal of money for waterborne transportation; however, to be eligible for funding, the ferry would have to be in operation.

Gerard has a number of questions about the operations of the ferry and said nothing in the interlocal funding agreement answered them. She also said she had ridden on a number of commuter ferries. “That’s a wonderful thing to do. They beat the heck out of a subway,” she said.

She is distressed that a private entity doesn’t want to disclose information but is asking for money. She said if other ferries could be more commuter-oriented this one could too. She agrees with Long and Seel that it needs to be part of a broader discussion.

“I’d be willing to approve it for one more year if you give me a lot more information,” she said.

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