Following a record-setting season, the Cross Bay Ferry encountered choppy waters as Pinellas County commissioners voted to terminate its agreement subsidizing the service.
However, the board voted Tuesday to enter into a separate interlocal agreement (ILA) with the City of St. Petersburg that ensures the ferry will stay afloat for at least three more years.
Pinellas officials rocked the boat in May, as the county provided notice to the other local governments in the original (ILA) – St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough County – that it wanted out of the arrangement. The commissioners took issue with the pace toward year-round operation, the ferry’s use for entertainment purposes rather than work commutes and a lack of involvement in contract negotiations.
The four local governments have equally subsidized the service since its pilot season in 2017, and recent data showed that only 5% of the Cross Bay’s passengers were unincorporated Pinellas County residents.
“We support the ferry too – that’s not the question,” said County Administrator Barry Burton in May. “The question is the terms and the transparency of the information provided within the agreement.”
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Burton told commissioners that officials met with their counterparts across the bay, who were concerned about renegotiating the ILA due to South Tampa accessibility issues and potential grant concerns.
“So, the partners, in essence, said, ‘you contribute a lesser amount,’ and they’ll pick up the difference,” relayed Burton. “But they weren’t willing to renegotiate the terms.”
With the new agreement with St. Petersburg in place, Pinellas officials have much more palatable terms.
The new ILA between the county and its largest municipality, approved by a 5-1 vote, stipulates that Pinellas will issue a one-time payment of $129,500 to the city. The county will then provide annual funding installments over the next three seasons of ferry operation in the amounts of $38,000, $40,500 and $51,000, respectively. All of the money will derive from the Pinellas General Fund.
A separate agreement between St. Petersburg, Tampa and Hillsborough stipulate that the three partners will continue equal subsidy contributions of 25%. A recent Florida Department of Transportation grant of $518,000 allocated over the three remaining years of Hillsborough’s direct contract with HMS Ferries, the service’s operator, will provide the 20% difference.
That new agreement, approved by the St. Petersburg City Council in June, eliminates the Pinellas portion of revenue sharing, which the remaining partners will now split three ways.
“It’s unfortunate that Pinellas County made the decision that they made a couple of months ago,” said Councilmember Brandi Gabbard in June. “But I don’t believe in continuing to try to drag someone into something that they obviously just don’t believe in.”
While the Pinellas board’s discussion around Tuesday’s vote was brief, Commissioner Janet Long thanked Assistant County Administrator Jill Silverboard for her due diligence in exploring the potential electrification of the ferry service. Long has remained adamant that newer, more environmentally friendly technologies should power the ships into the future.
“Is that correct?” she asked. “Please say yes.”
Silverboard concurred that stakeholders are pursuing federal grants “available to move forward with that technology and take advantage of it as soon as they can.” She also noted that the City of St. Petersburg broached the issue on Long’s behalf following her previous concerns.
“So, I just wanted to make sure the commission was aware that they’re watching,” said Silverboard. “And they’re being very, very responsive.”
Commissioner Dave Eggers, the lone “no” vote on the new agreement with St. Pete, asked if the ferry’s operators would continue to ask for taxpayer subsidies after the three-year term.
Silverboard said that while that remains unclear, based on conversations over the last six months, she does not expect the subsidies to “go to zero.”
Eggers reiterated that commissioners originally intended for the subsidization to help a transit alternative get off the ground and into the water. He said talks are different now, and the ferry’s usage “doesn’t seem to be changing anytime in the near future.”