Sometime in late January, the Cross-Bay Ferry linking the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa reached a milestone. Ticket sales generated enough revenue to cover costs, so the management company began sending money back to the four local governments that funded the ferry's six-month pilot phase — $50,000 to date.
Those facts don't suggest that limited ferry service is in any way the answer to Tampa Bay's transportation needs. Far from it. And yet some key measures demonstrate a ferry is a viable option. The Cross-Bay Ferry is growing in popularity — ridership has been steadily increasing, with weekday sales outpacing weekend sales. It has an audience willing to spend money to get out of their cars. Maybe most important, it's a hit with Tampa Bay residents. Some 90 percent of tickets are bought by locals, not visiting tourists, according to ridership surveys.
Running twice daily on weekdays with more trips on weekends, the ferry is largely a leisure vehicle. It's not practical for most commuters, and the price is not cost-effective for frequent use. For people living in Brandon, Clearwater or Wesley Chapel, it does nothing to rescue them from gridlock. It was never meant to. But it shows the value of creative thinking on transit for a metro area so woefully behind its peers that it needs every success it can muster, no matter how quirky. And its viability has revived discussions about a MacDill commuter ferry, which would transport employees from south and east Hillsborough to and from the Air Force base during daily rush hour. Building on that regular service, an intercity ferry like the Cross-Bay, carrying other passengers during off-peak hours and on weekends, could become a permanent fixture.
Put the pieces together, squint your eyes and peer a couple years into the future, and it starts to look a little bit like bona fide transit.