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Why the county sank the Cross Bay Ferry agreement

Mark Parker

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The Cross Bay Ferry docked at the Vinoy Basin in St. Pete. With a DOT grant covering most of Pinellas County's subsidy requirement, the service could continue for a fifth season on Oct. 1. Photo: Veronica Brezina.

After a contentious discussion during Tuesday’s board meeting, Pinellas County Commissioners unanimously voted to terminate its agreement that subsidizes the Cross Bay Ferry in the hopes of negotiating better terms and reducing taxpayer funding.

The interlocal agreement includes Hillsborough, Tampa and St. Petersburg, and Pinellas’ withdrawal follows a May 5 work session. During that meeting, County Administrator Barry Burton stated that county subsidies were to help the service and its operator, HMS Ferries, get off the ground and into Tampa Bay. Now in its fifth year, the Cross Bay Ferry recently concluded its most successful season to date.

Burton began Tuesday’s discussion by stating that county officials received several emails from residents supporting the ferry. He and the commissioners sought to clear any misunderstanding of what they hoped to achieve.

“We support the ferry too – that’s not the question,” explained Burton. “The question is the terms and the transparency of the information provided within the agreement.”

The four local governments have subsidized the ferry since its pilot season in 2017, and the Cross Bay recently set a record for ridership with 53,500 passengers in its fifth year of operation. The service runs from October to May, although the duration increases by one month until the final year of the agreement – 2025 – when the ferry plans to operate year-round.

Hillsborough County has a contractual partnership with HMS Ferries directly, while the remaining three governments participate in the interlocal agreement.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said she received over 200 emails regarding Pinellas terminating its contract, many bemoaning the lack of a public hearing. While she noted the county plans to renegotiate, she said the dissolution is the public’s takeaway – and they are technically correct.

As of Tuesday’s meeting, the county is not offering a public hearing on the matter.

Commissioner Janet Long noted she also received personal and inflammatory emails and clarified that she wanted to amend it to address issues the county discussed last year rather than permanently ending the contract. Pinellas is in the first year of a new four-year agreement, which Burton said was entered into after “we read about it in the paper being approved across the bay.”

“At, oh, by the way, the 11th hour,” said Long of the agreement.

“We had no time to share with anybody what our concerns were, or what our wishes were going forward.”

Long reiterated her stance that officials should be thoughtful and forward-thinking as they renegotiate the agreement to include newer, more environmentally friendly technologies to power the ships. She called it ridiculous that operators use antiquated technology in 2022 and said many other places are moving towards electric or hydrogen power for similar services.

“I keep hearing this is a partnership, but it’s not a partnership if we’re not at the table to have the discussion,” she added. “What happened to the idea of making this a tool in our toolbox … in terms of regional transportation for our citizens.”

In a statement to the St. Pete Catalyst, Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS Ferries, said the commission’s vote reopens the operating agreement, and “the ball is in Hillsborough County’s court.”

Turanchik said Hillsborough would have to address the Pinellas withdrawal with the two municipal partners. He said the company looks forward to working with Hillsborough as it discusses a new interlocal agreement.

“So, several agreements have to get done in pretty short order, and in the context of a much more expensive operating environment,” wrote Turanchik. “All governments are expressing support for continued service, so we will see where this goes.”

A rendering of the new Cross Bay Ferry vessel that could carry 350 passengers. Ed Turanchik, who represents HMS Ferries, told commissioners that withdrawing from the agreement could jeopardize a $5 million federal grant to purchase the new boat. Image: HMS Ferries.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Burton noted that the deadline for a new agreement between the four governments is Aug. 1 to ensure the service starts as scheduled. He said that leaves plenty of time for renegotiations and told commissioners he spoke with the other partners and would send them a letter offering to meet and discuss a new agreement following the meeting.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she had a problem subsidizing entertainment with taxpayer dollars when many residents struggle to afford basic necessities. She added that passengers take the ferry to things like expensive hockey games at a discounted travel price. Peters relayed that data shows the overwhelming majority of passengers utilize the ferry for entertainment on nights and weekends rather than as transportation to work, journeys that would take vehicles off area roads during the busiest times for traffic.

“They (HMS Ferries) have not been good stewards and good partners with Pinellas County,” said Peters. “If they were better stewards and better partners to the county, it would be a whole different conversation.”

Matt Miller, president of HMS Ferries, offered public comment on the county administrator report, something Commission Chair Charlie Justice called “unusual.” Through Zoom, Miller took umbrage with accusations that his organization was not a good partner, saying it was without basis or fact.

Miller said all relevant information was shared with Hillsborough County and was unsure why Pinellas did not ask them to share data.

“This appears to be an 11th hour with no public notice decision, which is exactly what you complained about at the beginning of the season last year,” said Miller. “Just an observation.”

Data presented during last week’s workshop was erroneous and incomplete, claimed Miller. He added that it was improper for county staff to make profit projections based on generalized information over a year old. He said HMS Ferries had no knowledge that the county was trying to estimate project profitability based on the proforma.

“The ferry is part of a public mass transit system,” stated Miller. “And until the permanent service is built, there will be a need for a small public subsidy.

“That’s a fact and should not surprise you.”

The current, 149-passenger Cross-Bay Ferry is docked at the Vinoy Basin in St. Pete. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Also speaking to the commission virtually, Turanchik said the commission’s decision to withdraw from the agreement puts next year’s service in jeopardy. Additionally, he said a $5 million federal grant to purchase a new 350-person vessel was also at risk. HMS Ferries currently utilizes a 149-passenger catamaran across the bay.

According to data presented during last week’s commission workshop, 43% of passengers originated from Pinellas County. Hillsborough County accounts for 34% of riders, and 19% are visitors. St. Petersburg accounted for 58% of the Pinellas passengers, with St. Pete Beach a distant second, at 8%.

Turanchik told commissioners that the new ferry would allow the service to operate without subsidies.

“There’s a lot of risks here,” he said. “Not just the $150,000 that Pinellas might put into this next year – along with everyone else. There’s a $5 million grant out there, and that is the way forward, so you don’t have any additional subsidies.”

After the two public comments, Commissioner Renee Flowers responded that “facts are stubborn things.” She noted the county used figures provided by HMS Ferries and that Turanchik was present in the audience. She said the county’s presenter looked his way several times when discussing numbers, with no objections.

Flowers said that while she appreciated the two ferry officials calling into the meeting, “no one thought it was important enough to be here in person.” She added that increasing prices and costs are affecting everyone, and the county has repeatedly asked for more information, to no avail. She especially took issue with the suggestion that the ferry may not operate next season if Pinellas cancels the agreement to renegotiate.

“Your consistent ability to say things that are not necessarily accurate really makes me not happy,” said Flowers. “I’m happy for the ferry; I’ve never ridden it – but I hear wonderful things about it.

“But please don’t try to back me into a corner and think that I’m not going to come out with facts – and that’s a fact.”

Justice stated that the county simply wants a true partnership. Not just for the fiduciary responsibility to its taxpayers, but to offer ideas and suggestions that could make the service more successful and sustainable.

Justice relayed the county’s interest in sponsorship and advertisement opportunities that would alleviate the need for tax subsidies. He believes Pinellas officials can work with their counterparts in Hillsborough to reach a new, mutually beneficial interlocal agreement. Commissioners unanimously voted to provide Burton the authority to terminate the current pact and begin the renegotiation process.

“This is a day long overdue,” concluded Justice.

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ben Lee

    May 11, 2022at3:31 pm

    A robust ferry system is crucial to Tampa Bay becoming a truly world-class, waterfront metropolitan. The current subsidy request of $150,000 is about the same as paving just 1,000 feet of a 2-lane asphalt road. Really now, let’s make it happen!

  2. Avatar

    Danny E White

    May 11, 2022at4:09 pm

    After five years in operation, where is the data that shows the ferry did what it was initially touted to do: what impact did the service have on reducing traffic on Howard Frankland Bridge? This service devolved into a leisure/tourist attraction for folks who can afford the tickets and the 50-minute travel time each way. If there is a public hearing, Commissioners should intentionally solicit feedback from those who actually used the ferry for work commutes.

  3. Avatar

    Nick

    May 11, 2022at5:30 pm

    This is shameful. They had plenty of time to better understand the terms and come up with a way to reduce the subsidy if they wanted this to really work.A $150k subsidy isn’t that much. I have no issues with my tax dollars going to support something that is going to provide alternative means around the bay, even if it was mostly used for entertainment and weekend events. All these people crying and complaining because there’s no proof of data to show that the ferry reduced road traffic, is an easy cop out. Did you really think it was going to do that? The operational hours and daily rate weren’t aligned to really make that sustainable or a reality. Secondly, the location of the ferry isn’t convenient for the workforce that would take it back and forth for such a commute. If small towns in countries “less developed” or not as economically sound as us can do ferry service, I really don’t see how this is an issue. We’re a coastal / bay city. The water is a major hub of attraction and resource, but yet we fail at developing a way to have ferry transportation on it – even if it’s just mostly used for entertainment purposes. Let’s do this – find a way to make the ferry happen!

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