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Cross Bay Ferry faces a cloudy future

Mark Parker

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Multiple area organizations are collaboratively working to establish an efficient and reliable waterborne transit system, with or without the Cross Bay Ferry’s operator.

A recent report from Pinellas County’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO) stated that the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce is “aggressive about securing” a long-term contract with a local ferry operator. HMS Ferries has operated the Cross Bay with a Boston-based crew and vessel since 2016, and local government agreements supporting the service end in October 2025.

Forward Pinellas board members approved an up to $55,000 contract with Seattle-based Diedrich RPM to study the regional ferry market at their May 8 meeting. Seattle is known for its reliable and affordable waterborne transit services, as discussed at a Chamber event in January.

Diedrich consultants cited the Cross Bay Ferry’s declining ridership and “history of issues” for the potential change in their research study proposal. “The intent would be to procure that service with a new operator – potentially somebody local, or at least in the State of Florida – and move to more of year-round service,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas.

Chris Steinocher, CEO of the Chamber, told the Catalyst that his organization still supports the Cross Bay. The seasonal service concludes in mid-June, and he will make one of the last treks from downtown St. Petersburg to Tampa with a group of stakeholders to highlight the “opportunities to live and work in both places.”

“The future of our community is in the connectivity to the region,” Steinocher said. “We need transportation options.”

Chris Steinocher (standing), CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, at the organization’s 125th annual meeting in January. Attendees heard the possibilities for an efficient, affordable ferry system, like that found in Seattle. Photo by Mark Parker.

Forward Pinellas will form a study committee with MPOs from Hillsborough, Sarasota and Manatee Counties by July 1. Blanton said Diedrich’s “statistically valid analysis” would conclude by the end of the year.

Diedrich will study the demographics behind and demand for waterborne transit services throughout the region. Those include the Clearwater Ferry, which runs between the city’s downtown waterfront, Clearwater Beach and Dunedin, and the Gulf Islands Ferry, which shuttles passengers between Bradenton and Anna Maria Island.

Hubbard’s Marina operates a water taxi from Fort De Soto Park to Egmont Key. Multiple Forward Pinellas board members noted the demand for services crossing the county’s Intracoastal Waterway.

“There’s kind of a patchwork quilt of operators, and I just wonder if we got them all together and really painted a system, how much more we could all do to serve our communities,” Steinocher said. “In a fun way, too. There’s nothing wrong with being out on the water and going to your next appointment.”

Diedrich’s proposal states that Hillsborough County officials no longer want to manage the Cross Bay. Steinocher envisions one entity, like the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), overseeing several ferry operators.

That would follow Seattle’s model, and Steinocher said PSTA could soon join the local organizations working to create a consistent and reliable waterborne transit system. “This study will give us the kind of data that will help build certainty for our government officials and private investors,” he added.

“Let’s craft the next awesome system for our community.”

The Cross Bay carried 50,927 passengers from Oct. 11 through April 30, a 12,521-person year-over-year decrease. The service recorded a record 72,299 riders in the 2023-24 season.

The Hornblower Group, the Cross Bay’s parent company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. The announcement stated that the filing allowed the company to receive new financing and reduce debt.

“The ferry continues to see strong ridership compared to previous years, despite a weather-delayed start to the season and a new St. Petersburg landing location,” said a Cross Bay spokesperson in a prepared statement. “We look forward to a strong end of season and the implementation of year-round service in 2024-25.”

The Cross Bay Ferry at St. Petersburg’s North Yacht Basin. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Steinocher also blamed declining ridership on the ferry moving to underutilized Port St. Petersburg from a temporary terminal on the bustling downtown waterfront. He said the Chamber has requested state funding for a permanent dock at the St. Pete Pier, and city officials have allocated project money in the upcoming budget.

Steinocher noted that the Brightline passenger rail service will eventually extend to Ybor City. He would like those passengers to hop off the train and onto a ferry to St. Petersburg.

Multiple Forward Pinellas board members said ferrying tourists to and from destinations – the Cross Bay’s primary use – alleviates congestion on area roads. Steinocher and other stakeholders believe an improved ferry service will support employees who can no longer afford to live where they work.

“We see it as a real opportunity to do more than just move tourists back and forth to the downtowns,” Steinocher said. “We see this as a transportation and affordable housing opportunity. This is a big deal for our community.”

 

 

 

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    David D.

    May 19, 2024at7:18 am

    It’s crazy that this metro area is so big, and so focused around the water, and yet we don’t already have daily ferry service running on the hour. I’ve tried to take the ferry for multiple trips to Tampa, but it’s never running at a date/time that works for what I need. I’m confident that ridership would jump up if it were made into more of a reliable form of daily public transportation, rather than a seasonal leisure activity.

  2. Avatar

    Ron Ogden

    May 18, 2024at1:01 pm

    Let’s see a story about who decided to move the ferry terminal, and lets see the paperwork supporting the decision. And then let’s see how these players fit into this whole Forward Pinellas attempt to colonize the whole multi-county process.

  3. Avatar

    Barbara Eastwood Rivera

    May 18, 2024at8:06 am

    We 100% APPROVE of the new location to the Port for the Cross Bay Ferry. Biggest positive is Now We Have Parking In A Lot Next to the Ferry; what a welcome idea!
    We invite visitors who had to find the garage downtown, park, get themselves orientated outside the garage, walk to the (previous) location to finally boats. When we return to St Pete on the last ferry @ 11 PM tired, and carrying purchases made in Tampa we have to walk at night to our vehicles parked in the city garage.
    The convenience and SAFETY of having parking directly adjacent to the ferry landing is absolutely WONDERFUL. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept change but we like the Port landing way way better.

  4. Avatar

    Rbruce

    May 17, 2024at10:58 am

    For $10k I will tell them that a daily ferry run is a money pit. Will never be profitable and not another taxpayer’s dollar should be spent on it.

  5. Avatar

    Tim K

    May 16, 2024at6:21 pm

    Affordable housing?

  6. Avatar

    Tatguy

    May 16, 2024at5:38 pm

    Correction – don’t need a ” study committee”

  7. Avatar

    Tatguy

    May 16, 2024at5:34 pm

    You don’t need a “study group” to understand that moving the docking position away from the former, centralized downtown location was a horrible decision.

  8. Avatar

    Bob Gershberg

    May 16, 2024at5:24 pm

    What a surprise! Move the ferry from the heart of downtown and ridership declines. Who could imagine?

  9. Avatar

    David B.

    May 16, 2024at4:16 pm

    They should have never moved the ferry landing from the heart of downtown St. Pete over to the port. It was a dumb, dumb idea and it’s not surprising that ridership is down as a result. Youtuber City Nerd recently did a overall positive review of downtown St. Pete, but blasted the location of the ferry landing:
    https://youtu.be/vOCHiisI9gY?si=yBjKHVXEVx9tZTiL

  10. Avatar

    Steve D

    May 16, 2024at3:37 pm

    The Seattle model is a good one. However, to succeed, the ferries have to land where people want to go. The current landing in St Pete is horrible and, frankly, embarrassing.

  11. Avatar

    Donald Joseph Mann

    May 16, 2024at3:33 pm

    Why not have a Automobile/passenger ferry boat to operate early morning and late afternoon trips to support folks to and from work and multiple amusement trips to and from Tampa and st pete.

    Donald Mann

  12. Avatar

    Billy Miller

    May 16, 2024at2:09 pm

    Location, Location, Location. The original ferry dock in Vinoy Basin attracted more passengers because of its location. People saw it and wanted to ride it. This season, the City buried it in Bayboro Harbor and many people, especially tourists, never knew it existed. Bring it back to the Vinoy Basin.

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