Mayor Rick Kriseman is asking city and county officials to commit to two years of funding for continued Cross-Bay Ferry service from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa.
Kriseman made his initial request to the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, and will make the same request to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners, the Tampa City Council and the St. Petersburg City Council over the next two weeks.
“We need to take action now to reserve the boat,” Kriseman told Pinellas commissioners. “A couple of years ago we did a pilot to see if the community on both sides of the bay would embrace a different way of getting across the bay other than the Howard Frankland bridge. The good news that came out of that pilot was, overwhelmingly, the public said we are interested in this mode of transportation.”
Ridership grew dramatically during the 2018-2019 seasonal service, compared to the prior season. In the pilot season, from Nov. 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017, more than 40,000 passengers used the ferry. The service took a year off. In the second season, between November 2018 through April 2019, more than 52,000 passengers rode the ferry.
An agreement with HMS Ferries Inc. allows for up to two additional seasons of service with locked-in rates, Kriseman said.
The local governmental entities are being asked to commit $149,182 each for the upcoming 2019-2020 season, and $136,881 each for the 2020-2021 season. A grant from the Florida Department of Transportation will provide $145,400 for each of those seasons as well.
“In the first year of the pilot each of the partner governments was asked to put in $350,000. We’ve been able to reduce the subsidy by more than half, in addition to continuing to see increased ridership,” Kriseman said.
Commissioner Karen Seel, who chairs the Pinellas board, said she believed the commission was “favorably inclined to support” Kriseman’s request for a memorandum of understanding for two years of funding, but two commissioners raised questions about it.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she would like to see the service better promoted throughout Pinellas County. She cited a survey Kriseman provided that showed ferry riders were coming from their homes and not from hotels.
“Why aren’t we asking hoteliers to be promoting this? If we’re going to invest in this it should be more countywide. Vacationers and tourists aren’t using it,” Peters said.
Commissioner Dave Eggers said he wanted to explore other models.
“This to me is a perfect private model that is begging for private ownership without subsidy. It’s a great opportunity for folks. It’s an untapped market. I think that’s the way we need to be going with this,” Eggers said.
The subsidy should continue to decrease as ridership grows, Kriseman said.
There is some time pressure, Kriseman said. “We have to commit to the vessel this month in order to reserve it.”
The Pinellas commission is expected to vote on the request for a two-year funding commitment at its Aug. 20 meeting.