Partners propose seven-day ferry service linking Hillsborough, MacDill, Tampa, St. Pete

The service would connect the region using four vessels, at an initial cost of $36.5 million.
Published April 16
Updated April 17

TAMPA — A new vision presented Tuesday for the Cross-Bay Ferry is bold, linking the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg year-round and providing commuter service every 15-minutes to MacDill Air Force Base.

But it also comes with some asterisks.

First, it wouldn't start until 2022 at the earliest.

And perhaps more important, it still requires approval from Hillsborough County Commissioners to pay $36.5 million for ferry docks at Williams Park in Gibsonton, plus four vessels, offices and other capital costs.

Two companies, HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Corp., would pay more than $100 million to operate and maintain the four boats for 20 years, according to a business plan shared at a press event Tuesday. But county commissioners must first to agree to pay the up-front costs to get the project running.

"There is just so much pent-up demand … everywhere for this service," Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said Tuesday.

Kemp said she expects her fellow commissioners to support the project, which could be paid for with a combination of Hillsborough County’s share of money from the BP Oil disaster and proceeds from the county’s new transportation tax. Former commissioner Ed Turanchik, a lawyer who represents the partners, said a vote might come before the commission next month.

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Linking some of the region's major job and entertainment hubs by water has been a long-discussed dream in Tampa Bay.

The idea of a commuter ferry service connecting the large military population in South Hillsborough County with MacDill Air Force Base was first floated in 2013, but faced a number of setbacks including environmental concerns with the proposed dock. Commissioners spiked the project in November, with a new board voting in December to bring the concept back for study and discussion.

While Hillsborough leaders quarreled over the costs and merits of a commuter route, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman garnered buy-in from local governments to launch ferry service between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg in 2016. The inaugural season posted solid numbers but made it clear there was no market for commuter service, at least not while only one boat is running a handful of times a day.

After taking a year off, the Cross-Bay Ferry came back for a second season in November, this time focusing on nights and weekends. The result was higher numbers and more sold-out trips.

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The 20-year, four-dock route pitched Tuesday is the brainchild of Turanchik, who recently was eliminated as a candidate for Tampa mayor. Despite ongoing efforts on both sides of the bay to keep water-based transit running in Tampa Bay, Turanchik's proposal came to fruition without input from local government leaders entrenched in those plans.

Kriseman, who previously was dubbed the ferry godfather for his work bringing the Cross-Bay Ferry to life, read the proposal for the first time alongside media members on the ferry dock Tuesday. Kemp said she had closely monitored the effort to bring commuter ferry service to MacDill but also had not seen the business plan for multi-city service until Tuesday.

"I have to emphasize that HMS would not have undertaken this commitment had it not been for the experience of the Cross-Bay Ferry," said Turanchik, who referred to the seasonal service spearheaded by Kriseman as "courageous."

But it was Turanchik who led the press conference, before riding the ferry to St. Petersburg with his family. Kriseman, who was not invited on board, drove back to his city.

Still, the mayor called Tuesday an exciting day and the culmination of what he and others had hoped for years would happen. He expects the potential 2022 year-round service will help him secure a short-term deal that would allow the Cross-Bay Ferry’s more limited current service to continue for another two seasons, bridging the gap until the seven-day service would start.

That agreement would involve continued contributions from St. Petersburg and Tampa, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and the state of Florida.

"In my mind, this gives a greater urgency to the need to keep the service going," Kriseman said. "The biggest complaint we hear most often is that the boat was sold out.”

Unlike the Cross-Bay Ferry seasonal service, the year-round ferry project would require no taxpayer money outside of capital costs. Hillsborough County would be the only contributing government, leaving Pinellas and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg with 20 years of ferry service at no cost.

“This major financial commitment by HMS Ferries is a testament to our confidence in the Tampa Bay region and the potential demand for water transportation," Matt Miller, president of HMS Ferries, said in a statement Tuesday. "We believe that creating a complete, seven-day a week ferry system would work best.”

The proposed service would run four boats between Williams Park and MacDill on all weekdays, except federal holidays, at 15-minute intervals during morning and evening rush hours. The business plan shared Tuesday projects at least 1,500 average daily riders.

The boat trip would last 14 minutes. Riders would exit the ferry, go through base security and then take a tram to various stops on base.

The MacDill-South County route is projected to eliminate nearly 11 million vehicle miles traveled each year, according to data in the business plan.

Two of the four boats also would be used for trips between South Hillsborough, downtown Tampa and the St. Petersburg waterfront on weeknights and weekends. A third boat could be added on days the Tampa Bay Lightning or Rays play, or for special events. If ridership spiked, officials could consider adding a third or fourth boat to the route daily.

The trip would take 30 minutes from South Hillsborough to St. Petersburg or 25 minutes to Tampa. Tampa to St. Petersburg would remain the longest ride at 50 minutes.

Because of the triangular service linking the three docks, boats sailing from St. Petersburg to Tampa would sail three times on most weeknights and four times on Saturdays and Sundays. That's fairly consistent with service offered between the two cities today, which includes two round trips weekdays and four round trips on Fridays and Saturdays.

South Hillsborough residents would also have the option to take the ferry to either downtown St. Petersburg or Tampa on weeknights and weekends.

Those trips would cost the same as current Cross-Bay Ferry rides: $8 for adults, $5 for seniors, military members and college students, and $3 for youth ages 5 to 18.

The weekday commuter service to MacDill would be offered at a $15 daily round trip fee or $260 per month. The monthly fare also would include parking at the dock or a bus or van pool ticket.

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