Five weeks after the Cross-Bay Ferry resumed crossing the bay, business is brisk, with ridership divided evenly between St. Petersburg residents and visitors heading east to sample what Tampa’s channel district has to offer, and Tampa people boating west for a meal or shopping excursion in downtown St. Pete.
A partnership between the two cities, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the exercise in public transit began as a six-month trial in 2016/2017, with full-time service beginning Nov. 1 of this year.
“We learned a few things during our test run,” general manager Kevin Fisher said before a recent afternoon voyage. “The schedule changed a few times during the course of our operation. When we first started, we were chasing after a commuter audience – and it didn’t quite pan out. We did a lot of early runs, like 6 a.m. out of St. Pete, and around 10 a.m. from Tampa to bring the day crowd over. But leaving that early out of St. Pete just didn’t work. We didn’t see the numbers there.”
As a water taxi for the working class, the Cross-Bay Ferry was a wash. Some days, no one at all showed up to ride.
“But we tweaked the schedule a few times, and we found a sweet spot in the mid-afternoon and evenings. A lot of people like taking the ferry from St. Pete over to Tampa; they’ll hop off the ferry, go to Ybor City, and vice versa. The night life in St. Pete draws the people over from Tampa – First Friday, and all the nice restaurants. That just brings the people out.”
Indeed, the current schedule eliminates Mondays completely, allowing more trips on the weekends. “Our Fridays and Saturdays are just phenomenal for us,” Fisher enthused. “One weekend, six of our eight runs were sold out before noon.”
Fisher works for HMS Ferries, the operating company out of Seattle. The 89-foot twin-hull catamaran Provincetown III is owned and maintained by Boston-based Bay State Cruise Co., which supplies the three-man crew.
He designed the ferry’s app and maintains its website, where schedules, rates and information are located.
A St. Pete Catalyst reporter gamely took the ferry from St. Pete to Tampa, and immediately back, and the ride was smooth, quick and uneventful. It was a little chilly out on the deck, with the Thursday-afternoon December wind at full throttle, but the views – The St. Pete Pier under construction, an enormous cruise ship passing into the sunset, flocks of seabirds skimming in tandem over the glassy Tampa Bay water – were thrilling.
It was very much like riding on a (very wide) train. The generous, comfortable indoor seating made it possible to have a snack or a drink – there’s beer, wine and a full liquor bar – without feeling the wind, or the chill, or hearing the noise of the engines.
Many passengers on this Thursday afternoon were headed to Amalie Arena for the Tampa Bay Lightning/Boston Bruins game.
Steve Best, a Lightning fan who lives in St. Pete Beach, was enjoying the smooth crossing. It was his first trip on the Cross Bay Ferry. “When the game starts at 7:30, I have to leave at 4:30 and deal with the traffic on the Howard Franklin Bridge just to get there on time,” Best explained. “And the closer I get to 5, the worse it is. It’s mind-numbing. For the Saturday games, it’s all right, but on weekdays … and once you get there, it’s always a parking nightmare.”
Best, who has difficulty walking, had parked his car in the Sundial parking garage and hoofed it to the ferry dock a quarter mile away, after considering – and rejecting – the metered parking on Bayshore Drive, literally adjacent to the dock.
Even if a passenger took the 4:45 to Tampa, and returned around 7:30, on the next boat, loading times and unforeseen delays make it a too-close-for-comfort call.
So Steve Best has a message for the City of St. Petersburg: “If there was some kind of waiver or accommodation with those meters, then people who are using the ferry will feel comfortable knowing they can make the trip and come back without getting a ticket.”
In case you didn’t hear, the Lightning won, 3-2.
By the numbers
Miles from the St. Pete dock to the Tampa dock
Minutes from St. Pete to Tampa, and Tampa to St. Pete
Knots per hour, the vessel’s cruising speed
Miles per hour, the equivalent of 28 knots
Passengers on board the crossing we went on
Capacity of the boat
Length in feet of Provincetown III
Width in feet of the Provincetown III
Dollars per crossing per adult (discounts for seniors, active military, college students and children)