A new focus on weekend trips has passengers flocking to the Cross-Bay Ferry

Halfway through its second season, the ferry sold more than 23,000 tickets, a 40 percent increase from its pilot year in 2017.
Published February 21

Kati McCabe's new favorite way of visiting Tampa replaces the Howard Frankland Bridge with a sea breeze and a glass of pinot grigio.

The St. Petersburg resident is one of thousands of people who have ridden the Cross-Bay Ferry since November, part of a local transportation experiment that is back after a pilot that ended in April 2017.

And halfway through its six-month season, the second year is going much better — with a lower-priced ticket and a new schedule that focuses on nights and weekends.

The ferry sold more than 23,000 tickets between Nov. 1 and Jan 31, according to data maintained by operator HMS Ferries. That’s a 40 percent increase in ridership compared to the first half of its pilot season.

January alone saw a 70 percent jump in ticket sales from the first year.

A lack of money and political will prevented the ferry from operating last year, but a state grant and contributions from local cities and counties made this year possible.

McCabe and her friends rode the ferry for the second time earlier this month to go to a Lightning game. Dodging traffic on the bridge, not having to worry about parking, and enjoying drinks on board before a night out are serious perks, she said. And at $8 each way, it's a cheaper option than Uber or Lyft.

That’s down from $10 tickets during the pilot year.

"The ferry has definitely become a favorite part of our weekend plans for events," said McCabe, 26.

MORE: Visit the Times Transportation page to stay current on the many ways we get around in Tampa Bay.

The vessel holds up to 149 people and travels between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. It typically makes four round trips on Fridays and Saturdays and two round trips on other days. It does not sail on Mondays.

"I think it's a great attraction for St. Pete and Tampa," said Steven Schemel, 67, who rode the ferry with his wife for her birthday celebration earlier this month. "It's something different we can do besides always having to drive."

With a 50-minute travel time, it's likely not any quicker than driving across the bay, but it is decidedly more relaxing.

Passengers find plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, bathrooms, bike racks, food and a bar awaiting them. They wave to people on passing boats and keep an eye out for dolphins. During the evening sailings, the sky turns pink and orange as the sun dips below the horizon.

"You can't beat a sunset on the water," McCabe said. "Driving over the Howard Frankland can still be pretty, but the feel and experience of the boat is so much fun."

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Unlike two years ago, there are no morning trips outside of Friday and Saturday.

Data from the pilot year showed people weren't interested in taking the boat to and from work. Instead, the schedule caters to weekend events, sports games, date nights and other entertainment options.

The ferry continues to see most of its success on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. More than 18,500 tickets were sold on weekends in November, December and January. Weekdays were much slower, with the boat sometimes sailing with a handful of people or less.

Trips with just 15 passengers or less accounted for about a quarter of the departures during the first half of the season. That's 10 percent or less capacity, most commonly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A handful of times, it sailed with just one or two passengers onboard.

The second season came with lower costs, both for passengers and the local governments who helped pay for it.

Tampa and St. Petersburg each contributed $150,000, as did Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to help cover the six-month run. The Florida Department of Transportation awarded a $438,000 grant that will be spread out over three years. The state money, along with a new contract with HMS Ferries, dropped the local contribution significantly from the first year’s cost of $350,000 per government.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who has been one of the ferry's biggest advocates, said a third season starting in November is not yet guaranteed. But the goal is to ask local governments to sign a multi-year deal, especially now that the second year is showing higher ridership.

"We’ve got a couple more years of state money, we've brought down costs, and we’re seeing ridership increase," Kriseman said. "Let's keep doing this until we're in a position, big picture, where we can (start) up service with multiple boats."

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Kriseman would like to see commuter service return one day, but he said that's not viable until there are at least four boats up and running. The key to convincing people to give up their cars — and parking spaces — is to have boats running every 15 minutes or so. That way if someone misses a departure, they know they won't be stranded for an hour or more.

Until then, tourists and locals are embracing the seasonal service as a way to check out events across the bay. Sporting events and festivals have been particularly good at boosting ridership.

Lightning fans have been quick to embrace the new travel option. It doesn't hurt that there's a bar on board, too, said Brian Caudill, 33, who recently took the ferry to a game.

"It's a lot better than sitting in traffic," he said.

Even though operators will hold the boat for 10-15 minutes if a hockey game goes into overtime, Caudill and his friends planned to take an Uber or Lyft home. The last departure time of 11 p.m. doesn't allow for post-game drinks and enjoying downtown Tampa on a Saturday night, he said.

McCabe agreed, saying she wished there was a "late, late night" option on a weekend. She'd even like to see themed cruises, singles nights or events to meet new friends.

"Anything event-based we loved," McCabe said.

Like others, she has learned the hard way to buy her tickets in advance, as weekend sailings sometimes sell out.

Sherry Medleau, 64, scans tickets for HMS Ferries and has a lot of experience turning people away who hope to buy their ticket 10 minutes before departure time.

"You'll have to try it by April 30," she tells a couple outside the ticket booth. "Otherwise, you'll have to wait until November, and that would be a shame."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727-893-8779). Follow @cljohnst.

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