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New ferry service could increase ridership by 90%

Mark Parker

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Upfront costs for a new commuter ferry route between South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base have soared by 45% to over $76 million.

However, the expanded Cross Bay Ferry service – which includes trips from St. Petersburg to a terminal near Riverview during off-peak hours – would also increase daily ridership by 90%. Those are some of the key findings in a Kimley-Horn report that Hillsborough County Commissioners will hear Wednesday.

Tanya Dorian, CEO of the Tampa Bay Ferry Alliance, said she is “cautiously hopeful” that elected officials will realize the benefits outweigh the escalating price tag. She noted that HMS Ferries agreed to cover the $175 million operating and maintenance costs over 20 years.

“That is the high-dollar ticket that is concerning with adding new lines of transit,” Dorian said. “And the beautiful thing about this project, and I just want to scream it from the top of a building, is that … HMS Ferries is willing to take on the operational risk. They’re just looking for the initial infrastructure and build.”

Tampa attorney Ed Turanchik, the operator’s local representative, was unavailable for comment.

Updated cost and passenger projections from the Kimley-Horn report. Screengrab.

The commuter service, first proposed over a decade ago, calls for Hillsborough County to absorb the initial capital construction costs. Estimates to procure ships and build the terminals jumped from around $40 million to over $50 million two years ago.

Due to inflation and an expanding scope, the latest study projects initial costs hitting $76 million. Dorian, who formerly served as the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, realizes that could be a sticking point for county commissioners.

“Quite honestly, that’s a risk,” she said. “I know right now, based on what I’ve seen so far this year, it seems like roads are the number one focus of the commission. If that’s the case, I’m sad to say that’s a little bit narrow-minded, in my opinion, because there are other solutions.”

The status report, requested by Commissioner Josh Wostal, comes a month after the board approved studying a proposed Lee Roy Selmon Expressway extension above U.S. 301 from Brandon to Riverview.

Dorian said expanding the ferry service is more cost-effective and would mitigate congestion faster than building more roads. She said it would also benefit the entire region.

Seasonal service between downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa began in 2016 with one Boston-based ship and crew, ferrying over 300,000 passengers. The new plans call for four vessels – with one able to hold 350 people.

The other three would have room for up to 149 riders. Daily trips would increase from 13 to 18, causing capacity to soar from 1,937 to 3,687.

The 2023 season ran from October 2022 to May and served over 72,000 passengers, a new record. The expanded fleet could carry that many riders in under a month.

The report states three vessels would permanently run from South Hillsborough to MacDill. The current intercity route would ferry passengers between St. Pete, the Riverview terminal and Downtown Tampa as a permanent evening and weekend service.

A map showing the new service routes, including from St. Petersburg to South Hillsborough County. Screengrab.

As of June, the site and environmental assessment are 90% complete. Officials within the extensive public-private partnership would still need to build the MacDill and Riverview terminals, and preliminary designing is 60% done.

Fertilizer conglomerate Mosaic has agreed to provide the land for the South Hillsborough terminal. The staff report notes that the Downtown St. Pete and Tampa facilities “may require no additional work.”

Kimley-Horn expects the design and environment phase to complete in 2024. Construction would take about 18 months, and the new service could begin in 2026.

Dorian expects St. Pete to see new stops and schedules if the fleet expands.

“This is the first phase, and the beautiful thing about ferry service is that it’s very adaptive and very flexible,” Dorian added. “I highly suspect that once this gets launched, we’re going to see it expand very quickly.

“I think there’s an opportunity for this to be a big-picture solution.”

Tanya Dorian, CEO of the nonprofit Tampa Bay Ferry Alliance.

While the upfront costs could impede those plans, she noted that the federal government is increasing financial support for alternate transit solutions. Dorian believes that 80% of the project could qualify for grants, although that also hinges on increasing ridership numbers.

She looks forward to working with Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas. Blanton is spearheading the study of a regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO) and invited her to attend the county’s upcoming Waterborne Transportation Committee.

Dorian also credited Mark Hubbard, owner of Hubbard’s Marina at John’s Pass, for working to bring regional transit to the area for decades. She called him a “wealth of knowledge” and said Pinellas is “a step ahead” regarding waterborne transportation.

“I’m very excited to see how that (regional transit) plays out in Pinellas,” Dorian said. “And I’m hopeful that Hillsborough will adopt that and see Pinellas lead by example with that.”

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