Friday, November 24, 2017
Transportation

The Cross Bay Ferry won’t come back this fall. What about 2018?

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Still waiting for the Cross Bay Ferry to return? It’s going to be a while — say, 2018 at the earliest.

The ferry’s supporters, most notably St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, had hoped to bring the boat back for another season after the first six-month trial run ended in April.

But lack of regional cooperation and funding, the same things that routinely bedevil Tampa Bay’s transportation system, stymied those efforts. In the end, there wasn’t enough support from local governments — and by support, that means money — to run it again this year.

"We ultimately kind of ran out time for when we had to pull the trigger in order to get the boat reserved, to get it here and start service on time," Kriseman said. "We decided to take a step back from this season, look at next season and really start planning for next year."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay weekends were made for the Cross-Bay Ferry; weekdays, not so much (April 29, 2017)

The ferry experiment connecting the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg was lauded by its fans as a success. Supporters crooned that the ferry had the highest farebox recovery of any transit system in Florida. Kriseman said the ridership showed a desire for water-based transit, and that the ferry would come back this fall as a seasonal option.

Others had their concerns. Sure, the ferry sometimes sold out on weekends and evening runs, but what about the empty boats that traveled back and forth during the weekdays? Then there were the repeated declarations from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn that the ferry should be paid for with private, not public, dollars.

Considering Tampa was one of the four initial partners who covered the trial-run’s operating costs — Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and St. Petersburg also chipped in $350,000 each — Buckhorn’s lack of interest complicated bringing the boat back for a second season. Neither of the county commissions has vocalized the same opposition to another year of funding.

There were other complications. Ongoing construction on the new pier project in downtown St. Petersburg meant the ferry might lose its dock next to the Museum of History, leaving fewer parking options. If the ferry returns, that will still be a problem.

Ferry advocates also wanted to see how St. Petersburg’s mayoral election shook out. Kriseman, the ferry’s most vocal advocate, faced off against former Mayor Rick Baker, who showed little interest in continuing the project.

So the deadline came and went with Kriseman and other ferry advocates unable to secure local funding. Kriseman then won reelection on Tuesday.

But ferry supporters such as Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough county commissioner and lawyer who advises ferry owner and operator HMS Ferries, are hopeful the ferry will be back in 2018. For real this time.

To help with the cost — and the potential loss of Tampa as a partner — St. Petersburg applied for a Florida Department of Transportation grant. The state awarded St. Petersburg $438,131 to help pay the operating cost of the ferry in 2018-19. That could substantially reduce the funds needed from the cities and counties, and perhaps convince doubters like Buckhorn to sign-up for another year.

It’s a one-time award, though, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said, meaning St. Petersburg would either have to re-apply each year — the state program usually has less than $1 million to give out annually — or look elsewhere for the money.

What could help, Turanchik said, is the cost of a second season would likely be lower than the $1.4 million pilot program. For one thing, some of the initial overhead costs and necessary infrastructure were taken care of during the pilot program.

He also believes that if the ferry returns it will have "higher revenues" once poorly attended weekday trips are eliminated and the service focuses on beefing up night and weekend service.

Ticket data provided by ferry operator HMS Ferries for the pilot season supports that theory.

The ferry sold 37,242 tickets from Nov. 4, 2016 through April 24, 2017. About 25,000 of those riders, or 67 percent, rode it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The other third, or 12,000 people, used it the rest of the week. Ridership also strengthened in the later months, as more people learned of the ferry and tried to try it out before it stopped sailing in April.

Despite Buckhorn’s stance that the project should be largely privately funded, Kriseman isn’t ready to give up on Tampa as a partner. Instead, his goal is to reduce how much each partner governments would pay. He said HMS Ferries has already offered to take on more of the operating cost. Kriseman hopes other dollars will be available, either through sponsors or private partnerships, to reduce the public’s share of the cost.

"Ultimate, the goal is to reduce the amount of money we cities and counties put in versus other private and outside groups," Kriseman said. "Until I know the amount we’re looking at, I don’t think we’re willing to say anyone is out yet."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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