St. Petersburg officials have reaffirmed their commitment to the Cross Bay Ferry – and with a reduction in Pinellas County’s subsidy requirements, the city could even receive more of a revenue return as the service motors forward.
During Thursday’s city council meeting, Evan Morey, director of transportation and parking management, provided council members with an update on the status of the Cross Bay Ferry. The service encountered rough waters in May after Pinellas County Commissioners withdrew from an interlocal agreement requiring four local governments to equally subsidize the ferry.
Pinellas officials grew disenchanted with the pace toward a permanent service, its use for entertainment purposes rather than work commutes and what it felt like was a lack of involvement in the contractual agreement. County officials hoped to negotiate better terms that would reduce taxpayer funding, and Morey said a proposed arrangement could grant the county its wish.
Morey said administrations from the three remaining partners in the interlocal agreement (ILA) – Hillsborough County and the Cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg – agreed to the framework. However, he emphasized it still required votes by the respective governing bodies. Under that proposal, Pinellas would contribute 5% of the subsidy rather than the previous 25%, eliminating its portion of the revenue sharing.
“If there’s revenue returned to the government partners, we’ll get to divide that and have a third of it, instead of a quarter of it,” said Morey. “So, in that regard, we actually would come out ahead of where we expected.”
The proposed funding arrangement to continue the ferry service calls for the three local governments to 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 another 20%.
Pinellas County would contribute the remaining 5% in a lump sum payment, allowing the service to continue with no additional cost over the original ILA. Because the county is not sharing revenues and wishes to provide its portion at once, Pinellas and St. Petersburg could enter into a separate interlocal agreement to pass funding to Hillsborough.
Pinellas County would no longer participate in the primary ILA.
“It’s unfortunate that Pinellas County made the decision that they made a couple months ago,” said Councilmember Brandi Gabbard. “But I don’t believe in continuing to try to drag someone into something that they obviously just don’t believe in.”
Gabbard added that she disagrees with the county’s belief that the ferry is solely for entertainment purposes. While the service is enjoyable, she said it is still part of a multimodal transit system.
Gabbard, who sits on the board for Forward Pinellas, noted the organization increased its efforts to expand multimodal and waterborne transit across the county over the last year and a half.
“So, for us to then be putting the Cross Bay Ferry in any sort of jeopardy seems like a dramatic step backward,” she said. “I’m in full support of working on the interlocal with them and having them cover what their portion of the ride-share is, and us moving forward in a cohesive manner with Tampa and Hillsborough.”
Ridership for the 2021-22 season, which ran from Oct. 19 to May 1, exceeded 62,000 passengers. Revenue exceeded $640,000, and both set new records for the ferry’s fourth official season. The revenue return threshold is $400,000, with the four governments splitting the overage, minus third-party expenses and fees.
St. Petersburg’s share of this year’s return is $17,663, and Morey expects to provide the city with $31,762 in total. The city’s subsidy for fiscal year 2022 was $175,000, with $190,000 budgeted for the longer 2022-23 season.
Hillsborough County Commissioners voted Wednesday to continue the service, and they have until July 1 to notify HMS of their desire to continue the partnership. Pinellas commissioners will vote July 19 on whether to enter a separate ILA with St. Petersburg.
St. Pete City Council could vote on the two ILA’s and a licensing agreement with HMS for docking on Aug. 4. The city must also obtain required dock permits from the Army Corps of Engineers by Aug. 15.
If the local governments meet those conditions, the fifth year of ferry service will continue on Oct. 1.
“Every year, it’s about the success of the ferry in the season that just closed,” said Council Chair Gina Driscoll. “And the numbers that you (Morey) just showed us for this season that just ended – and the increase over last year – is just incredible.
“I mean, we have a winner here.”