The Cross-Bay Ferry is ending its six-month pilot program on a high note. With record sales and a return on investment for the four local government partners, the ferry has shown potential, tapped the imagination of area residents and laid a foundation for future ferry service across Tampa Bay. The question now becomes how to sustain it.
The ferry operators say March was a record month, with nearly 8,000 tickets sold, a 31 percent increase over February. Some 36,000 have been carried as of this week, showing the ferry can build a passenger base. The final run is April 30. Organizers hope to bring the service back this fall, but financing is still up in the air.
The experiment began in November as an effort to explore the demand for regular ferry service. There are few sweeping take-aways for the local governments involved, for the two or three round-trips per day between St. Petersburg and Tampa are not enough to serve a truly commuter market. And there still are kinks to work out on both sides to get people off the boat to other destinations in a timely and seamless manner.
Still, the ferry experiment shows there is a market for waterborne travel, even for entertainment. Ridership for both weekday and weekends increased significantly from February to March. And a recent survey showed more than 90 percent of passengers are residents, not tourists. This speaks to the increasing vitality of the downtowns in St. Petersburg and Tampa, the marketing efforts of the ferry operators and the strong connections they have already been made with sponsors and business partners.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, each contributed $350,000 for the experiment. Under the agreement, they have received about $112,000 combined in cash reimbursements. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said that total could reach $120,000 by the time service ends.
Taxpayers stand to recover only a portion of their costs, but this was not designed as a moneymaker for local government. By testing the waters, the region has some sense of how waterborne travel could add to the bay area's quality of life. Travelers have an idea of the ferry experience, and local planners and the business community have a glimpse of what's involved in a longer-term effort.
Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday directed county staff to find money in next year's budget to bring back the seasonal service. The county is also negotiating an agreement for a public-private partnership that would provide ferry service between MacDill Air Force Base and south Hillsborough County, where many stationed at MacDill reside, as well as other routes for the general public connecting the Tampa Bay area.
This market is not yet fully developed for ferries as a transit option, and it would take millions in public money to fund a commuter ferry. But this project got the conversation going, and local leaders should continue exploring how to turn this exciting idea into reality.