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St. Pete-to-Tampa ferry project clears first hurdle: Hillsborough County Commission

The ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg would be similar to this 98-foot vessel that can carry 149 passengers.
The ferry between Tampa and St. Petersburg would be similar to this 98-foot vessel that can carry 149 passengers.
Published Aug. 4, 2016

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Commission gave its unanimous backing Wednesday to a project years in the making — a cross-bay ferry linking the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"This is so significant — connecting two cities and really stop talking about the word 'regional' and actually becoming regional," Commissioner Sandy Murman said just before the 6-0 vote.

The $1.4 million pilot project still needs approval from the Tampa and St. Petersburg City Councils today and the Pinellas County Commission next week. But those votes increasingly look like a formality.

The ferry could start carrying passengers as early as Nov. 1.

"This is another thing we can use to showcase our community," Murman said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman approached the County Commission about the cross-bay ferry in January. In a rare display of regional cooperation, Tampa, Hillsborough and Pinellas gave Kriseman the green light to negotiate a deal to make it happen.

Under the terms of the agreement reached with HMS Ferries, each of the four governments will pitch in $350,000, or a combined $1.4 million, for the pilot study. HMS Ferries will operate daily service between St. Petersburg's North Yacht Basin and a dock in Tampa near the Convention Center.

The ferry will make two round-trips a day Saturday through Thursday, and three trips on Fridays. A one-way ticket will be $10, though prices may fluctuate.

HMS will collect the first $125,000 in ticket sales and the four governments will split any additional revenue.

"We fully expect the project to exceed this amount of operating revenues," said St. Petersburg spokesman Benjamin Kirby.

The project's backers hope tourists and residents alike will use the ferry to travel between the two cities. They envision St. Petersburg's residents boarding the ferry to get to Tampa Bay Lightning games at Amalie Arena or Tampa visitors crossing the water to check out a restaurant on Beach Drive.

The six-month test run will measure the ferry's use by commuters and non-commuters and its effect on vehicle usage as officials gauge whether it's feasible, or even logical, to make this a permanent fixture on the bay.

Some have other concerns.

In January, Commissioner Kevin Beckner warned that a half-year trial might not be enough time to let people know it's an option, let alone gauge public interest.

Kriseman agreed at the time that it wasn't ideal, but the ferry is only on loan from the north during colder months. Just renting the boat for six months will cost $560,000, the largest expense.

There are logistical issues, too. For example: What happens if the weather turns bad before riders can make their return trip? And without other transit systems in place to support it, most people would still have to drive to the pick-up point.

While he voted for the final agreement, Commissioner Stacy White, who represents east Hillsborough, said he will be closely watching to see if residents outside the urban core are using the ferry. That will determine whether he is willing to be an equal partner in a permanent ferry route or if he will push for the cities to pay for a larger piece, as he did earlier this year.

"I just want to make sure we don't have a disproportionate share falling on the backs of unincorporated residents," White said.

If successful, the ferry could help meet a growing demand to use the region's waterways for transportation. In Tampa, water taxis are often packed with patrons looking to bar hop or sight-see along the Hillsborough River.

Other ventures, though, have seen mixed results. Despite much hope and hype, ridership for the water ferry along Clearwater Beach remains inconsistent.

HMS Ferries also is working with Hillsborough County on another ferry that would connect the south shore area near Apollo Beach to MacDill Air Force Base. The target customers are military personnel and their families. That proposed route has some financial backing from the federal government, but it will be years before the county completes the necessary environmental impact studies to unlock those dollars.

At the very least, the cross-bay pilot program demonstrates that regional governments can collaborate. When Kriseman came to Hillsborough County to introduce the project in January, commissioners noted the significance of his personal pitch.

On Twitter, Kriseman thanked the commission for its unanimous support.

He added: "3 govs to go."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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