A survey of people who rode the Cross-Bay Ferry between downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg this year found strong interest in a year-round ferry service connecting multiple points in Tampa Bay.
More than 3,000 passengers completed the 21-question survey that was sent out to riders last week. The ferry's second season ended April 30, and ridership totaled more than 52,000 trips — far surpassing the 2017 pilot season.
Survey results were shared Monday with the local governments that helped pay for the six-month seasonal boat service.
That gives Hillsborough County Commissioners a couple days to review the results before they hear a presentation scheduled for Wednesday about bringing permanent ferry service to the bay area.
Former Tampa mayoral candidate and lawyer Ed Turanchik first unveiled the proposal last month on behalf of his client, HMS Ferry Inc., which runs the Cross-Bay Ferry and hopes to run the new service as well. The project would cost the county $36.5 million to get the service up and running and use four boats to provide seven-day service around Tampa Bay.
More than 70 percent of respondents said that creating a permanent regional ferry system is very important to them.
The survey described a scenario similar to the proposed business plan commissioners will review Wednesday: ferries running every 30 to 60 minutes during the rush-hour traffic window, then boats running every hour or two during evenings and weekends.
The docks would include the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa along with South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base. The survey has one feature that the proposed business plan doesn't: a dock in the Westshore/Tampa International Airport area (the details of exactly where this dock would go were not revealed.)
The existing route linking Tampa and St. Petersburg remained the most popular option, with more than 73 percent of respondents, about 2,100, saying they would use it periodically on nights and weekends for games, events and other travel. The theoretical route between St. Petersburg and Westshore was the second most popular choice, followed by a boat linking St. Petersburg and South Hillsborough County.
"It's exciting to see affirmed what most of us already knew: that the Cross Bay Ferry is a popular way to utilize our common waterway for transportation," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a leading ferry advocate, in a statement. "I want to thank the Hillsborough County Commission for their consideration and thoughtful discussion of proposed ferry service in Tampa Bay."
READ MORE ABOUT THE CROSS-BAY FERRY:
The survey results were largely positive, with 96 percent of riders rating their experience as either excellent or very good.
"When one of the chief complaints is they ran out of red wine," Turanchik said, "you know you're doing something right."
Most riders — 60 percent — said they visited the other city because the ferry made it more convenient to do so. The remaining 40 percent said they would have made the trip any way, but decided to take the boat rather than drive.
Once they arrived in the other city, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they spent at least $25 per person at each destination, with about 30-percent spending more than $40 each.
"People are taking a ferry instead of the bridges and they're spending a lot of money in both cities," Turanchik said. "It's pretty powerful stuff in terms of what you want to get out of a premium transit project."
A majority of riders dined out, while a third visited a museum or cultural attraction and a fifth used the ferry to attend a sporting event.
Kriseman is hoping to keep seasonal service running November through April until a year-round service could start in 2022. Under that plan, 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.
Unlike the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry service, the year-round ferry project would require no taxpayer money for ferry operations and maintenance. State and federal grants could help defray the cost of the boats, docks, offices and other capital items.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.