A cohort of regional business and military leaders have joined forces to realize a “decades-long vision” of connecting area communities through year-round ferry service.
CEO Tanya Dorian announced Tampa Bay Ferries Alliance’s launch Wednesday.
Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, is the city’s representative on the Alliance’s seven-member board. He relayed his “head over heels” excitement for the new organization and confidence that its leadership will see their goal to fruition.
Steinocher said year-round ferry service would create a new paradigm for moving people around the region. He added that St. Pete stakeholders should share his enthusiasm and begin discerning how to best capitalize on new connections to south Hillsborough County and downtown Tampa.
“It’s going to reshape how we look at ourselves and how we get on and off this peninsula,” Steinocher said. “None of these people have money on it; nobody is making money on it. These are people who want a better quality of life for their community, their neighbors and the people who work for them.”
Dorian formerly served as the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO. She said that experience taught her the importance of stakeholders coming together and providing a united voice when pursuing mutually beneficial goals – like a permanent, direct route across the bay.
“I see the quality of life impact this project can have,” Dorian said after the announcement. “The economic development this project can have, in addition to the traffic congestion relief I highly suspect it will bring.”
Dorian stressed the nonprofit is unaffiliated with the Cross Bay Ferry or its operator, HMS Ferries. Company officials announced last week that it surpassed the 300,000-passenger milestone and was on pace to break last year’s ridership record of 62,130 with time to spare.
HMS Ferries continues extending service by a month. The Cross Bay will run from October to June next year before – hopefully – carrying passengers year-round in 2025.
Tampa attorney Ed Turnachick, the operator’s local representative, previously said that the Cross Bay can only provide 32 weekly trips as it charters a Boston-based ship and crew “who can only work so many hours a week.”
A $5 million federal appropriation for a new, publicly owned ferry would enable expanded service. However, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is taking longer than many would like to complete the procurement process.
In addition, Turnachick noted commuter challenges would remain, as “one vessel can’t be in two places at once.”
Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base also serves as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operation Command’s headquarters. It employs thousands of people, and St. Petersburg small businesses hope to increase partnerships.
Michael Ball, the Alliance’s board chairman, is a retired naval officer. Vice Chairman Fred Fallman formerly served as MacDill’s deputy director for mission support, and board secretary Joe Eletto has worked with multiple veteran and support organizations.
Those military ties are not coincidental, as Dorian noted the new ferry would operate from a south Hillsborough terminal and transport personnel to MacDill. She relayed that a “high-ranking” official called the service a “game changer.”
Eletto, a Vietnam War veteran, said in a prepared statement that the ferry “is a win-win for us all and the only transportation option that will improve these heroes’ quality of life by giving them back well over an hour with their family each day.”
Dorian said that regional stakeholders “are on the right path” but added that there are several moving parts to a slow process. Part of the nonprofit’s focus is to educate the community and maintain open lines of education.
She also believes that increasing connectivity would benefit both sides of the bay and said, “We’re better together.”
“It’s time,” Dorian said. “The whole region is developed enough that it should have a sustainable, permanent ferry system in place.”
Steinocher noted that of the nation’s 20 largest metro areas, Tampa Bay is the only one lacking regional transportation. Continuous ferry service would exponentially increase the talent pool within a 30-minute commute of St. Pete, and he said that would benefit current business owners and entice those looking to relocate.
The ferry could “absolutely” bolster public safety, particularly if multiple vessels frequently carried over 300 passengers across the bay. Roadways inevitably become clogged during hurricane evacuation orders, and Steinocher noted many people lack personal transportation.
“We are grossly behind,” Steinocher added. “This is one good step towards it, and for St. Pete, it creates so many options that we have to be at the table.”
The Cross Bay Ferry and its crew will return to Boston May 29. For more information on the Tampa Bay Ferry Alliance, visit the website here.