Return of the ferry? St. Pete takes first step to bring it back

The Cross Bay Ferry, seen here docked at the St. Petersburg Museum of History on 335 Second Ave. NE, started operating in April 2016 and finished the trial run in November 2017. It took a year off because of lack of regional cooperation and funding, but St. Petersburg officials hope to re-start it for a 2018-19 run. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
The Cross Bay Ferry, seen here docked at the St. Petersburg Museum of History on 335 Second Ave. NE, started operating in April 2016 and finished the trial run in November 2017. It took a year off because of lack of regional cooperation and funding, but St. Petersburg officials hope to re-start it for a 2018-19 run. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published June 6 2018
Updated June 7 2018

The ferry that once linked St. Petersburg and Tampa could return in November — if everyone pays up.

The St. Petersburg City Council took the first step Thursday when it voted 6-1 to fund the Cross Bay Ferry for another six months, from November 2018 to April 2019.

"Any mode of transportation that we can find a robust system for, I am all in favor of," City Council member Brandi Gabbard said.

She and fellow council members Charlie Gerdes, Amy Foster, Darden Rice, Steve Kornell and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman all voted in favor. Ed Montanari was the lone no vote. Gina Driscoll did not attend the vote.

The commitment, which precedes a formal agreement due in July, could set the stage for re-starting the ferry after it took a year off following its 2016-17 trial run. But that plan again depends on whether the City of Tampa and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will chip in.

Ferry service did not resume last year due to a lack of regional cooperation and funding. So St. Petersburg focused on re-starting the ferry this year, but all four governments will have to agree to contribute.

"Is there some sort of Plan B in place?" Gabbard asked.

"We’re really sticking with Plan A for now," said City Transportation Director Evan Mory.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The Cross Bay Ferry won’t come back this fall. What about 2018? (Nov. 10, 2017)

The four partners each contributed $350,000 to pay for the ferry pilot program in 2016-17, when the bay area was introduced to the concept of a leisurely 50-minute ride across the bay.

This iteration of the ferry plan calls for each partner to pay $150,000 to restore service, with the rest of the ballparked cost — over $747,000 — bankrolled by a grant from the state Department of Transportation.

Since the pilot program, though, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has maintained that the ferry should be paid for privately, not publicly.

"He has said from the outset that this effort eventually has to stand on its own without relying on government support to subsidize a private venture," said Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. She said Buckhorn won’t be making a decision on "non-essential expenditures" until after the city’s budget is complete. She offered no timetable for when that will happen.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a full-throated supporter of the program, emphasized that his city’s decision is just the beginning.

"If the partnership doesn’t happen," he said, "the ferry doesn’t happen."

The Pinellas County Commission is slated to review the $150,000 commitment on June 14, and commission chair Ken Welch said he believes his fellow commissioners will vote to fund it once again.

"But we’d like to see that subsidy continue to decrease," he said, adding that a final decision would likely be made in September.

The Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council have yet to schedule votes on the matter, but Kriseman’s spokesman said the mayor will schedule meetings with those elected officials to discuss the issue.

The service, if approved, will be handled by the ferry operator that oversaw the trial run, Seattle’s HMS Ferries.

According to the St. Petersburg proposal, the first $200,000 in revenue generated by the ferry will go to the four governments. The next $200,000 would go to HMS. And anything after that would be divvied up 50/50 between the agencies and the company.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay weekends were made for the Cross-Bay Ferry; weekdays, not so much (April 29, 2017)

The data from the ferry’s inaugural season showed that it did better as an entertainment option than a transportation option. It sold 37,242 tickets from Nov. 4, 2016 through April 24, 2017. About 25,000 of those riders, or 67 percent, rode it on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Ridership also increased every month as public awareness of the ferry grew.

If the service returns there will be changes, however. Early-morning rides are unlikely to come back. Instead, planners are looking to extend trips later into the day and to add another round-trip route between Friday and Sunday.

The new proposal offers the partners the chance to pick up a second and third season of ferry service. The vessel would dock in the North Vinoy Basin because of the construction of St. Petersburg’s new waterfront pier. If the partners opt for a second or third ferry season, it would move to the pier.

HMS president Matthew Miller said the new proposal calls for at least 32 one-way ferry trips per week. Adult ticket prices would cap out at $8 (the maximum cost for the first run was $10), and there would be discounts for seniors, students, and active and retired military members. Children age 4 or younger will be able to ride for free.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story did not explain why ferry service did not resume last year.

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] Follow @JustinTrombly.

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