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Tampa Bay weekends were made for the Cross-Bay Ferry; weekdays, not so much

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The Cross-Bay Ferry has been sailing between the downtowns of St. Petesburg and Tampa from November to April. The six-month trial ends Sunday, but officials are already working to bring it back for next season, and hope to one day make the service permanent. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The Cross-Bay Ferry was an experiment for a region struggling with traffic, wedded to cars and separated by a big body of water.

If given the choice, would people ditch their cars and take a boat across the bay instead of sitting in traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge?

The answer: It depends on the day of the week.

The ferry saw most of its success on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as a weekend entertainment option. Far fewer chose to use at as a commuter option, and weekday ticket sales reflected that.

The ferry sold 37,242 tickets from Nov. 4 through April 24. About 25,000 of them, or 67 percent, rode it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The other third, or 12,000 people, used it the rest of the week.

The ferry grew more popular as more people learned about it. The 16,397 tickets bought in March and first three weeks of April was 44 percent of all tickets sold. Organizers also tinkered with timetables and ticket costs to make the ferry more attractive.

The six-month trial run comes to an end Sunday. The ferry's Godfather, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, has spent the last few weeks touting the ferry at government meetings as "incredibly successful."

The mayor and other proponents hope the trial run proved to politicians and taxpayers that ferry service should return as a seasonal option — and, maybe one day, permanently.

"We had very limited funds that were available to us, and I think we made the most of them," Kriseman said. "We've seen a real desire for other options, and for getting out of our cars and onto the water."

The pilot was funded by contributions of $350,000 from four governments — the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Kriseman said each locality should get about $30,000 back this year from ticket sales.

The ferry holds up to 149 people and traveled between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. It typically made three round-trips on Saturdays and two round-trips on other days. Tickets cost $10 each way, though Frontier Communications paid for everyone's tickets during certain promotional days.

Ticket data was provided by ferry operator HMS Ferries up to April 24. The data used here included about 2,800 tickets paid for by Frontier, because those riders set out to use the ferry. It does not include the 1,751 passengers — politicians, the media, local groups, even generals at MacDill Air Force Base — invited by the operator to try out the ferry when the service started.

There were some surprises within those numbers: In about 700 ferry trips, it sailed virtually empty a quarter of the time, with just 15 passengers or less. That's 10 percent or less capacity, most commonly on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A handful of times, it sailed with just one passenger onboard, or no one at all.

The ferry carried 100 or more passengers about 130 times, or about 19 percent of the total trips, mostly on weekends. It exceeded 90 percent capacity, or carried more than 134 people, just 6 percent of the time.

The data showed that after a fast start in November, when 5,855 people used the ferry, ridership dropped 34 percent in January (3,857.) A ferry spokesman attributed that to colder weather and the loss of key weekends: The ferry did not operate on holidays, Gasparilla or the national college football championship game in Tampa.

But ticket sales shot up 57 percent to 6,070 in February and haven't stopped climbing. The first three weeks of April has already seen a record 8,407 tickets sold and could surpass 10,000 once the final tally is in.

But what's driving those numbers are weekend, not weekday, ticket sales. In April alone, 60 percent of the tickets (5,040) were sold on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

"That's not surprising," Kriseman said. "We knew the commuter piece was going to be really challenging ... You're asking a lot of people, to take a chance and change their schedules for something that was only here six months."

A ferry feasibility by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization showed that the 50-minute cruise isn't very competitive compared to driving across the bay. Instead, the ferry seems geared more toward tourism and entertainment.

There also aren't a ton of people who live in south Pinellas and work in downtown Tampa, Hillsborough MPO executive director Beth Alden said. The commuter market just isn't there.

"Maybe if you ran a ferry on a regular basis and it had multiple trips, it might change where people eventually buy their homes," Alden said. "But right now, you don't have a huge amount of folks making that commute trip. It's going to be a lot easier to drive at this point."

• • •

Joan Chase, 80, of St. Petersburg, is an example of someone who loves her weekend ferry rides. She started making plans to meet up with her friend in Tampa as soon as she learned about the ferry.

"It's so wonderful to have an alternative here," Chase said during a Sunday cruise on April 23. "These places are screaming for ferries."

Chase, like many others who took the ferry and shared their opinions in interviews or through surveys, loved it. So the problem wasn't convincing people the ferry was an enjoyable option, it was getting people to take the boat in the first place.

She and friend Trudi Segal, 73, had been planning for months to meet up using the ferry. Both were surprised and disappointed to learn service would end this weekend.

"They're stopping it just when I figured out how to get to the beach," Segal said. "I would've taken it frequently."

Segal stopped driving on the interstate years ago. She can only make it to the beach once a year these days, and only if she can find someone to drive her. But the ferry gives her a relaxing trip across the bay and a chance to enjoy the water..

• • •

Both sides of the bay are already working to bring the ferry back.

Hillsborough County Commissioners told staff to find money in next year's budget that could again contribute to a seasonal ferry. The Pinellas County Commission and Tampa City Council are also in favor of that. Kriseman said he's hoping to attract state and federal grants that could help expand the service by a boat or two next year.

But the Cross-Bay Ferry, which cost $1.4 million total, is a niche product compared to a real ferry service. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) had a $34.2 million operating budget last year.

"The key part about a ferry is they're very expensive to subsidize if they're not being heavily used," said Mitchell Moss, director of the New York University Rudin Center of Transportation. "It takes long a period of time to develop a following. People take time to switch their habits."

Six months, Moss said, probably isn't long enough to win over commuters — especially with just one boat.

But Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough county commissioner and lawyer who advises HMS Ferries, said 37,000 or more people riding one boat for six months is actually a good sign.

"We had such limited service and such limited marketing, that this is really a robust market response," he said. "Just imagine if you had two or four boats with good hours of operation and more service. It would be far, far stronger."

Kriseman and Turanchik see a way to get year-round ferry service across the bay through another proposed route: a ferry connecting south Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base.

The goal of that service is to provide reliable commuter service for MacDill employees who live in south county. But that could leave a giant swath of time on nights and weekends that the boat isn't being used. Kriseman pointed out those downtimes line up with the most successful trips between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

Those ferries could run commuter service during the day in Hillsborough County and then operate between St. Petersburg and Tampa on evenings and weekends.

"We're all still looking regionally here," Kriseman said. "Now we've got the task of looking at all the numbers and finding a way to bring it back."

Times staff writer Nathaniel Lash contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.