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Pinellas County commissioners move Cross-Bay Ferry discussion as concerns surface

Veronica Brezina

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Cross-Bay Ferry

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.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Jerry Reed

    August 25, 2021at4:34 pm

    I find myself agreeing with several of the Pinellas County Commissioner that this is nothing more than a private company wanting to create a business which is always great thing.
    This is more like a business that offers a fun time on the water. They could be taking passengers around the Tampa Bay area. They could be going into the Gulf of Mexico for a sunset cruise or traveling down to Bradenton/Saratoga for lunch/supper and returning to port.

  2. Avatar

    Carmen

    August 25, 2021at8:18 pm

    The ferry absolutely reduces traffic on the bridges. My friends in Tampa use it to come St Pete (and spend money), and a bunch of us in St. Pete use the ferry to go to Tampa (and spend money). So no, is not just tourists. Lots of locals use it.

  3. Avatar

    M G Harding

    August 26, 2021at7:30 am

    If so many people are using it then why can’t it make it on its own financially? The issue isn’t about whether it should exist, but whether a private for-profit company should be subsidized by tax dollars. What happened to the so-called free market? I agree with the commissioners, it should no longer receive public funds. There are better transportation solutions out there that should be implemented.

  4. Avatar

    Danny White

    August 26, 2021at5:15 pm

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the math to use this service daily to and from work does not add up! Who has 50-minutes each way to spare and parking fees plus any supplemental transport if the destination is beyond either downtown area? It’s an entertainment option, NOT a business option for 9-to5ers who it was initially touted to be. Long live the Howard Frankland bridge! It’ll get easier with the new bridge!

  5. Avatar

    Nick

    August 26, 2021at5:40 pm

    All I hear is a bunch of “I can’t, I don’t like, I don’t support” instead of being a problem solver and helping to keep or create opportunities for this type of service to continue. If you established a pilot then what were the guidelines and decision points you all established to determine the future viability of this option moving forward? Seems like the Commissioners have no one to blame but themselves for the disorganized communication and planning of this pilot.

    As a tax paying citizen, I personally don’t mind if some of our dollars go to support this service one more season, while the local governments continue to workout options for the future, which should include paving the way for private companies to come in and establish cross-bay transportation services so that the amount of tax dollar investment needed eventually goes away.

    The gulf and bay areas of St.Pete/Tampa have a unique opportunity to support this type of service given our natural makeup and layout of the area. A metro area our size and with this type of natural resource should easily have and be able to support ferry/taxi services. Many other water based cities in the US and abroad have found ways to either subsidize water transportation services or create policies and regulations to help foster the type of environment needed to make this a reality. Even places like Mexico, Costa Rica, the U.S. territories of St. Thomas and St. John, all with access to the water make this type of service a reality. There’s no reason why St.Pete/Tampa can’t do the same.

    I’d like to see our Commissioners and Council members come together and problem solve here and think of the potential, create a vision and a plan and get to work! Fine if you don’t want to spend tax dollars on this for the long-term, but don’t pull what’s been started until you think through what CAN YOU do to help keep and support this mode of transportation vs. just whining and quitting. Anyone can do that!

  6. Avatar

    Rita Moore

    August 26, 2021at7:51 pm

    If it went to MacDill, I and and many other Armed Services retirees and dependents would use the ferry. Much easier than taking one of the bridges to Tampa and fighting traffic all the way.

  7. Avatar

    Ronald Bierworth

    August 28, 2021at8:27 pm

    As a Pinellas resident I’m not a fan of just throwing money at it if there doesn’t seem to be a return on the investment. That being said I would like to know what the operators have done to tweak the system. Have they made attempts to increase revenue or have they just kept things as is. Also now that the St Pete Pier is open would it be possible to move the stop to the pier or add a stop for the pier trolly to pick up people from the ferry port?
    Just an idea to think of before killing the ferry.

  8. Avatar

    Velva Lee Heraty

    September 25, 2021at12:59 pm

    It’s clear HMS Ferries has not operated in good faith to date and that’s always a problem when one is asking for commitment-free money. Personally, I’d like them to develop their potential as a business and move their operation to our Innovation District near USFSP and create a commercial schedule to other area locations and possible carry small cargo. I also fully support them leaving Vinoy Basin. They are a commercial eyesore that is out of place in a cultural/park setting. Our park system is the best thing about St. Pete, let’s honor it instead of invade it with unattractive vessels that serve no real or aesthetic purpose.

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