Pinellas County commissioners hesitantly approved an agreement Tuesday to financially support the Cross-Bay Ferry over the next several years.
While the county commissioners expressed concerns in advancing the Cross-Bay Ferry, the board ultimately cast a 5-2 vote in favor of entering a four-year interlocal agreement with the operators HMS Ferries Inc. so the service would become a permanent year-round service by 2024.
The Cross-Bay Ferry first kicked off in 2017, providing a linkage between Tampa and St. Pete. It has received financial support over the years from local municipalities and would require continued funding.
With the new agreement reached, Pinellas County would funnel $822,500 in total for four years. The term starts on Oct. 1. The cost could be reduced based on potential revenue sharing from HMS and funding assistance from the Florida Department of Transportation, according to county documents.
The city of St. Petersburg, the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County previously gave a green light to move forward on the agreement – Pinellas County was the last partner the operators had to join on board with the plan.
Pinellas County commissioners recently pushed the discussion on the future of the ferry as they have criticized the service, stating it is not a true mode of transit for locals, and that the idea of the service eventually becoming the premium choice without subsidies is “aspirational.”
“Everybody is coming to us as the ugly stepchild because we have planted our feet and we have questions we want [to be] answered,” said Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who is also on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority board. “I am letting that go … it still wrangles me, but in the spirit of cooperation, coordination and collaboration, I am letting that go.”
Long also noted that Forward Pinellas established a waterborne transportation subcommittee, and through PSTA there is a private-public partnership with the Clearwater ferry that could bring electric vessels to the area.
Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS Ferries, stated how future service can entail connecting to Southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base – which has been a long-desired goal – as well as possibly other connections in Tampa.
The commissioners quickly steered the conversation to focus on the existing service concerning St. Pete and Tampa.
“What you are talking about has nothing to do with this proposal for the next four years. My bigger problem is three years ago this was the promise – we were all going to have ferries from MacDill to South County – it never happened,” Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters said.
“Until you have a concrete plan, I’m not confident on spending money on a project that has a benefit for St. Petersburg, but not a county-wide benefit…the needle has not moved. I’m disappointed you didn’t start the permitting, you didn’t start all this last year or the year before. I do feel we are the red-headed stepchild.”
“This is our first opportunity that we’ve had to have serious engagement with Pinellas County staff,” Turanchik said. “Shame on us, and we apologize that we should have known better but no one put us on alert to say, ‘Engage with Pinellas County Commission.’ But we’re here now and it will never happen again and we’ll work with you closely.”
The seasonal ferry service currently utilizes a 149-passenger, catamaran ferry that docks at the Vinoy Boat Basin, adjacent to the St. Pete Pier, and connects to the Tampa Convention Center as the Tampa terminus. The commute is 50 minutes.
In the ferry’s first and second years of operating, county documents put ridership between 50,000-52,000 passengers. In the third year, the ridership was less than 40,000 riders due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The financial breakdown for the next four years:
- Each of the four participating agencies, including Pinellas County and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, subsidy share is $175,000 for year one. They will share $190,000 for year two; $202,500 for year three and, $255,000 for year four.
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor have touted the seasonal service as a viable form of transit since it launched, stating it alleviates congestion on the Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges.
Kriseman took to Twitter to state how he was glad to see Pinellas County execute an agreement for the ferry to continue.
All smiles to know the @CrossBayFerryTB will continue. Thanks again to the contributing governments. The ferry is not the answer – it’s one tool. We are slowly changing the culture and getting folks used to water transit. Also good for our economies. Keep cruising! #SunShinesHere pic.twitter.com/GvZ0tjql7r
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) September 22, 2021
This season’s ridership will far surpass the records we had before, HMS Ferries President Matt Miller said. “Based on these projections, you will have more service for less money with the final year being the path to permanent service with no subsidies.”
The ferry operators will continue to operate weeknight schedules to provide connections between the two downtowns when there are special events, and will operate service on all nights when the Tampa Bay Lightning are playing home games.
Pinellas County holds the right to terminate its agreement if it chooses to do so by June 1 of next year.