Just a few days into the new season of Cross Bay Ferry service, St. Petersburg officials already are looking ahead to the 2021-2022 season and beyond.
The existing agreement with HMS Ferries expires at the end of this season and the city will work with other local governments and agencies on a request for proposals for continued ferry service, including potential year-round service, said Evan Mory, transportation and parking director.
Ferry service has been popular and ridership has been growing. In the four-and-a-half months the Cross Bay Ferry was running last season, before it stopped trips between St. Petersburg and Tampa due to Covid-19 in mid-March, it carried about as many passengers as it did in the entire previous season. It resumed operations for this year on Sunday, with extensive safety precautions, including required masks, seat dividers and hand sanitizer stations.
“On Sunday there were 400 passengers that rode the vessel so we know people are comfortable riding with the Covid restrictions that are in place,” Mory said.
There are no renewal options on the existing agreement, so to continue ferry service beyond the spring of 2021, there needs to be a new request for proposals.
“I believe the RFP will have multiple options for the city and our partner agencies to choose from. We likely would put out an RFP that would request proposals on seasonal and year-round service,” Mory said.
Forward Pinellas, a regional planning agency, has recently put together a waterborne transportation work group, said Council member Brandi Gabbard, who is a member of that work group.
“I think what we’re going to see come out of it is a desire for these partnerships between PSTA, TBARTA and private ferry companies to create some level of a robust, regional waterborne system,” Gabbard said. “St. Petersburg has an opportunity to be a leader in that.”
Pier parking price going up
Ferry service was one of several downtown waterfront issues before the St. Petersburg City Council Thursday. The council also got an update on the status of the Tall Ship Lynx, an educational initiative focused on the War of 1812, as well as an overview of operations at the new St. Pete Pier.
The Pier, which opened July 6, is concluding its fourth month of operation, said Chris Ballestra, director of enterprise facilities. Restaurant sales are exceeding expectations. The Marketplace, for small business vendors, is a success and expects to add four or five market stalls in the next month or two. Installation of the Benoist Monument, commemorating the world’s first commercial airline, is projected for the end of the month, followed by courtesy docks for boaters opening in February.
The Pier has hosted events such as a successful pumpkin patch and watch parties for the Tampa Bay Rays during the World Series.
“We’re really just beginning to very cautiously, very slowly, very safely get into bringing back some types of events in a limited fashion,” Ballestra said.
There have been few hiccups, including traffic issues at Bayshore and 2nd Avenue and on Pier Drive, he said. The city is looking at potential alternatives to help traffic flow.
Revenue from parking at the Pier is higher than anticipated, Ballestra said, and a small parking rate increase is planned to help offset maintenance costs.
“Those lots are doing very well. They’ve been a very good revenue source for the Pier, and we knew we would be making adjustments on the rates. It could have gone up or down, subject to how things played out. At this juncture, it will be a nominal increase, approximately 50 cents an hour, and go into effect hopefully in a couple of weeks.”
In the past, both the Cross Bay Ferry and the Tall Ship Lynx have docked at the old pier.
Construction on the new pier required the ferry to move its dock to Bayshore Drive but the Tall Ship Lynx has not been able to dock in St. Petersburg since May 2018.
The city has a license agreement with the Lynx Education Foundation from February 2017 to April 2021, allowing the Tall Ship Lynx to dock and operate in the North Yacht Basin from November through April of each year. But when Pier construction and seawall work began, dock connections and pilings were removed and water and electrical connections feeding the dock locations were terminated, said Joe Zeoli, city development administration and finance managing director. Although the Pier construction is complete, there’s still no docking available, he said.
The city looked for other sites for the ship, including the Cross Bay Ferry dock on Bayshore. Most of those locations could not accommodate the ship, and none of them were acceptable to the Lynx from a visibility and marketing perspective, Zeoli said. Ship operators want to be in the North Yacht Basin, he said.
“As we move forward, the Pier project is complete and both the land side and the seawall work have been accomplished. Now we’re looking at plans for return of some docks in the North Yacht Basin,” Zeolie said. “The idea is to create a docking system to accommodate not only an exhibition vessel, like the Tall Ship Lynx, but potentially the ferry operation and maybe even some commercial operators such as dinner cruise vessels.”
The full project could take 18 months to two years, he said. The permitting process for new docking requires regulatory approval and is lengthy. Funding also is key.
“We have some [tax increment financing] dollars from the Intown TIF available to us … but those monies are also allocated to some seawall repair and renewal that’s going on in the central and south basins, and we have to understand the magnitude of that work first before we know how much could be left for dockage in the north basin,” Zeoli said.
In an Oct. 8 email, Tall Ship Lynx Captain Donald Peacock said he had anticipated the return of the ship to St. Petersburg in January, and was disappointed that would not be occurring. Peacock said he looked for the lease agreement to be extended.