The operators behind the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry connecting Tampa and St. Pete have hit some rough seas in their efforts to become a permanent service.
Operated by HMS Ferries Inc., the Cross-Bay Ferry first kicked off in 2017. It has received financial support over the years from local municipalities and would require continued funding.
While Hillsborough County gave a green light to move forward on it as well as the other partners, Pinellas County isn’t completely on board.
“I have not been supportive of using tax dollars for this project since the beginning. We were told in the beginning this was just a pilot and after that pilot period, this private company would be on their own – that hasn’t happened,” Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers said during a Tuesday board meeting. “The argument was made that this was transit and clearly, it wasn’t then and isn’t now. Maybe sometime in the future, it will be.”
Several commissioners voiced concern that the service may not carry an adequate number of people to justify allocating public dollars to a private company, and that the majority of riders are tourists as opposed to residents commuting for business reasons.
In the ferry’s first and second years of operating, county documents put ridership between 50,000-52,000 passengers. In the third year, the ridership was less than 40,000 riders due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
To date, the four local governments have contributed $3.2 million to the ferry’s operations, of which $800,000 is from Pinellas County, Pinellas County Commissioner Kathleen Peters said.
If the county commissioners were to approve the agreement, the county would fund $822,500 using taxpayer money for the next four years.
“I have not seen any return on investment,” Peters said. “I’m not against the ferry, I just don’t think the residents of this county should be funding that private organization, which is an entertainment service.”
She added that HMS Ferries proposed new routes that would connect to the southern Hillsborough County area on Mosaic’s property and the MacDill Air Force Base never materialized.
“I don’t believe they are saving any traffic on the bridge on the weekends,” Peters said, explaining how a majority of the riders are heading to Tampa Bay Lightning games.
“We keep hitting our residents with more and more [fees and rates],” she said. “I think the ferry can survive on its own with a $25 fare without having to take taxpayer money to do it.”
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Jane Castor have touted the seasonal service as a viable form of transit since it launched, stating it alleviates congestion on the Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges.
“There’s been a terrific, unbelievable lack of communication between all of the partners, especially with us,” Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said.
Commissioner Charlie Justice echoed the same frustration.
Matt Miller, President of HMS Ferries, acknowledged the concerns and the poor communication. He reminded the board that the funding contribution would only be for the course of the next four years per the agreement.
The commissioners approved moving the discussion of the funding request to a September board meeting.
The seasonal ferry service currently utilizes a 149-passenger, catamaran ferry that docks at the Vinoy Boat Basin, adjacent to the St. Pete Pier, and connects to the Tampa Convention Center as the Tampa terminus.
Additionally, next month, the Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled to review an item from HMS Ferries seeking support on establishing the MacDill Air Force Base connection, a linkage the company has been proposing for years.