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Cross-Bay Ferry Needs Tampa Bay to Voice Its Support




By Chris Steinocher, President and CEO, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Bob Rohrlack, CCE, President and CEO, Tampa Bay Chamber

In 2016, the Cross-Bay Ferry began its first season of service between St. Petersburg and Tampa to mark an exciting new era of public transportation in Tampa Bay. Six years later, the ferry’s steady ridership growth, including a record setting 2021-2022 season, has established it as a consistent, reliable public transportation option to the most popular restaurants, museums, events, and shopping destinations in the downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa areas.

However, for the ferry’s next season, starting in October, the public funding investment that the ferry has partially relied on to build its ridership base is at risk of not being renewed by the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners. A choice to jeopardize one of Tampa Bay’s and St. Petersburg’s most cost-efficient, reliable, and beloved public transportation resources would be a disappointing step backward in our region’s goals to significantly relieve roadway congestion, boost commerce to local businesses, and provide a fast, fun, and affordable way to travel. The Cross-Bay Ferry is a vital component to our region’s transportation and economic future.

Benefits to Tampa Bay
Here is how the ferry is delivering tremendous benefits to the Tampa Bay area and why its partial public funding should be continued:

— Steady ridership growth-The pandemic notwithstanding, the ferry’s ridership has consistently grown season by season and demonstrated how it has become a regular transit choice for Tampa Bay residents and visitors:

— Local business value-Ongoing, regular rider surveys continue to highlight the ferry’s success as a commerce driver for the Tampa Bay region. Data reveals that more than 90% of riders patronize restaurants, shops, museums, and sporting events in Tampa and St. Petersburg, with almost 70% of respondents indicating they spend more than $40 at their destination city.

— Affordable transportation option-At just $10 for a one-way trip and $20 for a roundtrip, the ferry offers a valuable public transportation option to Tampa Bay residents as one of the most economical ways to travel between downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa.

— Record-breaking season-On May 1, the ferry completed its most successful season ever, with a record-breaking 62,130 riders, almost 10,000 more than its prior record, set during the pre-pandemic 2019-2020 season. This season also saw ridership grow by more than 60% over last season.

— Lengthening season-As part of continuing effort to improve its service, the ferry has been steadily increasing the length of its season, and now typically offers seasonal service from early October to mid-May.

— Permanent service plans-The ferry recently announced plans that include the potential to accelerate the start of permanent service for the 2024-2025 season and make available a valuable transportation option throughout the year. In February, the Federal Transit Administration awarded Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) a $4.9 million grant to buy a new 350-passenger vessel. Building on this, HMS Ferries, the operator of the ferry, and its development partner, South Swell Development Group, have accelerated their work with Hillsborough County in their plans for permanent ferry service. Under the plans, a new regional ferry terminal would be built in South Hillsborough County on land donated by the Mosaic Company, and four new ferries would be constructed that are being designed to operate in the shallow waters of Tampa Bay. The 350-passenger ferry funded by the federal grant would be part of this fleet.

— Expanded service plans-The permanent ferry service announced above would also include weekday commuter service between MacDill Air Force Base (MAFB) and South Hillsborough County and weeknight and weekend regional intercity service between Tampa, St. Petersburg, and South Hillsborough County. HMS Ferries and South Swell Development forecast that permanent regional intercity service could begin between Tampa and St. Petersburg in the 2024-2025 season, and commuter service to MAFB in the fall of 2025.

Why We Need Your Support
As a new public transit service, the ferry has needed a public funding investment to help defray costs associated with establishing itself as a public transportation fixture and building its ridership to a point of profitability. While this investment, though, has so far enabled the ferry to make tremendous gains in ridership and revenue growth, it is still needed and relied on by the ferry.

As a case in point, for the season that just ended on May 1, 2022, HMS Ferries has suffered financial losses because of unforeseen spikes in fuel, labor and insurance costs. However, it’s critical to understand that HMS Ferries is not turning to its government partners for recoupment of its losses from off years based on unforeseen circumstances, such as the lingering effect of COVID. Years like this are part of the ups and downs of a public-private partnership. Even so, it is crucial for the ferry to continue to receive public funding for now to continue its growth and establishment in our community.

A Promising Future – with Your Support
With its increasing ridership and recent grant for the purchase of a new vessel, the Cross-Bay Ferry is positioned to begin a promising new era of permanent service in Tampa Bay. The new 350-passenger boat will double the capacity of the current boat and provide a stronger foundation for the development of regional ferry service across Tampa Bay. It will also allow regional ferry capacity to be increased by nearly tenfold from last season’s service.

Ultimately, though, this new boat is just one of several promising developments that will further establish the ferry as a mainstay transit option to reduce congestion, create local jobs, support small businesses, and increase connectivity across the Tampa Bay area. To do this, we need the help of all Tampa Bay residents to continue the partial public funding that the ferry relies on while it continues to grow. Jeopardizing the foundation and progress made since the ferry’s 2016 launch would be a tremendous disservice to the residents, local businesses, and visitors of St. Petersburg and Tampa, especially as the system sees record ridership and begins to flourish.

Please join us in voicing support to keep the ferry as a permanent transportation option and ensuring that our local leaders hear your support for continued public investment. Please write to the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners (

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