Hillsborough County approves $350,000 for Tampa Bay ferry pilot program
TAMPA -- St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s regional pitch for high-speed ferry scored a key win Wednesday when Hillsborough County commissioners committed $350,000 to the pilot program.
In a rare appearance at the Hillsborough County government center, Kriseman presented his plan for a six-month, $1.34 million pilot program that would connect the downtowns of St. Pete and Tampa by a ferry that would run six days a week across Tampa Bay.
Kriseman met Tuesday with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who expressed interest but didn’t fully commit to the project after.
Hillsborough commissioners, however, were quick to jump aboard and voted 5-1 to allocate up to $350,000 for the project. The money will only be awarded if all four regional governments affected -- Hillsborough County, Pinellas County, Tampa and St. Petersburg -- contribute $350,000 to the pilot program and if they all agree to the terms Kriseman negotiates with the company operating the service, HMS Ferries.
Kriseman said for too long Tampa Bay citizens have been left “wondering how two cities and two counties that are surrounded by water have no waterfront transportation.” If realized, a single vessel would make three to four round trips per day Tuesday through Sunday, with opportunities for charter rides and more runs during large conventions or other marquee events. The planned route is from downtown St. Pete near the Museum of History to the Tampa Convention Center.
Commissioners generally spoke positively about the project.
“We need to view this as a tool in the toolbox and the raising of the bar of the quality of life,” Commissioner Victor Crist said, “and most importantly what is symbolizes and that’s the merging of our communities. The vision is finally coming to reality of one solid regional community pooling our assets and working together.”
Still, there were concerns. In voting against the project, Commissioner Stacy White, an east Hillsborough Republican whose district is furthest away from the ferry’s proposed downtown Tampa dock, said the two cities should have to pay more than the counties.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner questioned whether a six-month pilot project was enough time to gauge whether a ferry is a feasible mode of transportation for residents and visitors. If approved, the ferry would begin running in October through early 2017, which doesn’t cover the region’s peak tourism season.
Just getting word out about the ferry and building up ridership could take six months, Beckner said.
Kriseman acknowledged it wasn’t ideal. However, the ferry is only available on loan from the north during that time period, and he said the 2017 NCAA National Football Championship at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa will provide a good test for the potential tourism impact.
While he begrudgingly voted for the project, Commissioner Les Miller asked Kriseman for greater assurance that the county could recoup some of its expenses from revenue generated by ferry trips and advertising.
Kriseman said that was the goal but he couldn’t promise it.
“Our hope would be that the revenues generated would cover the monies that we put in,” Kriseman said. “Having said that, the reality is transportation infrequently is a profit-making venture. It is something that we provide for quality of life and equally important is it is a necessity for economic development.”
In addition to funding, Kriseman also asked commissioners for help advertising and marketing the ferry, and to assist lobbying state lawmakers to help support a second ferry. That would cost about $900,000 more a year.