The Cross Bay Ferry has now made the trip between St. Petersburg and Tampa a little less stressful, and significantly more scenic, for over 300,000 passengers.
Despite some growing pains and a pandemic, ridership is exceeding expectations set by HMS Ferries’ leadership after the 2016 pilot season. According to Wednesday’s announcement, the Cross Bay is on pace to break last year’s record of 62,130 passengers with weeks to spare before the ship and its crew return to Boston May 29.
That is about a month longer than the 2022 season, and the service will extend until the end of June 2024 before – hopefully – carrying passengers year-round in 2025. Local attorney Ed Turanchik represents the Cross Bay’s operator, Indiana-based HMS Ferries, and said the post-Covid numbers have “rebounded dramatically.”
“Whereas the rest of transit is having a tough time crawling back,” added Turanchik. “We’re running at about 55% capacity, which is just exceptional.”
He said many trips from Friday through Sunday sell out, and the ferry typically reaches capacity during Tampa Bay Lighting games. Turanchik also noted that its record-setting year comes amid a price hike.
The ferry’s rates rose from $8 when the service began in October 2022, to $12 for adult one-way tickets, and he said ridership simultaneously increasing “doesn’t always happen.”
“So, people are really using the ferry as a way to get to places that they want to visit and enjoy themselves,” Turanchik said.
Wednesday’s announcement stated that the new milestones represent the Cross Bay’s growth and “another step in its evolution in becoming a permanent transportation option” for residents and visitors traversing the bay. Pinellas County Commissioners took issue with the pace toward that lofty goal last year, along with its entertainment-based usage and perceived lack of involvement in contract negotiations.
Commissioners withdrew from the original interlocal agreement subsidizing the service and entered a separate contract with the City of St. Petersburg in July 2022. Regional collaboration between Hillsborough County, the City of Tampa, the Florida Department of Transportation and St. Pete ensures the Cross Bay stays afloat.
Turnachik said ferry officials remain steadfast in their goal to provide year-round service and serve as an alternative for those commuting across the bay for work. However, that requires more ships.
He explained that the service can only provide 32 weekly trips as it charters a Boston-based vessel and crew “who can only work so many hours a week.” Turanchik said a $5 million federal appropriation spearheaded by Congresswoman Kathy Castor for the company’s first ship would enable expanded service hours and days.
“Still, it’s only one vessel,” he added. “One vessel can’t be two places at once, but it will change the amount of service we can put out and reduce costs.”
He said the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority oversees the ship’s procurement and could not provide a timeline for a maiden voyage. Turanchik reiterated that plans to operate year-round in 2025 hinge on a new publicly owned vessel and a locally based crew.
The Rays and regional transit
Despite Major League Baseball’s “complicated” scheduling, Turanchik would like to base trips around Tampa Bay Rays games. People often blame poor attendance on the commute across the bay, and he said company leadership is exploring those possibilities through ongoing design and permitting processes.
In addition, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit line, the SunRunner, includes a stop at Tropicana Field. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) leadership has also expressed their desire to implement a station at the St. Petersburg Pier – less than a quarter mile from where the ferry docks in the Vinoy Yacht Basin.
“We’ve indicated to PSTA that providing a seamless connection to the SunRunner would be extremely beneficial for both services,” Turanchik said. “Because right now, we have a regional transit system. You can go from historic Ybor City to the beaches of St. Petersburg, and you don’t have to drive.
“Closing the gap between the SunRunner and the ferry would make it even better. In Tampa, you get off the ferry and walk about 600 feet, and you’re on a streetcar. We’d love to see something similar in St. Petersburg.”
There is also the housing aspect.
Turanchik said the new ferry would headquarter in south Hillsborough County, and noted the area’s exponential growth. He relayed a strong interest from those residents to have a “fun and cheaper” alternative to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge when traveling to St. Pete.
Conversely, people priced out of the city could find more affordable housing around Apollo Beach and Riverview and utilize the ferry as a workforce commuter service. Chris Steinocher, president of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, is a longtime proponent of that idea.
Turanchik noted that the two frequently discuss the potential benefits.
“You start with the best service possible and build from there,” he said. “And that’s our business plan.”