TAMPA — Residents and tourists should once again be able to ride a ferry between the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg now that three participating governments have signed off on the two-year project.
Hillsborough County Commissioners unanimously voted Wednesday to contribute nearly $300,000 over the next two years to help operate the Cross-Bay Ferry through 2021. St. Petersburg and Pinellas politicians have already approved their shares. Tampa City Council is scheduled to vote Thursday.
The ferry, which first launched in 2016, runs seasonally, November through April. With its on-board bar, 50-minute travel time and sweeping views of Tampa Bay, the newest transportation mode quickly gained traction with both locals and visitors.
Fans sporting Tampa Bay Lightning jerseys were often spotted lining up outside the St. Petersburg dock on game nights last season. Across the bay, trips from Tampa sold out as people snatched up tickets to visit shops and restaurants along Beach Drive and Central Avenue.
Those tickets added up. Passengers took nearly 41,000 trips during the pilot season.
The ferry took a year off before coming back in 2018 with a new focus on nights and weekends, along with a lower ticket price of $8. Ridership jumped to about 52,500 trips with the new schedule and cost.
“The return on investment is incredible...This is a small amount of money for the number of riders,” Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman said Wednesday. “And the use of our water, I can’t say enough...I think we’re committed for the long term.”
Weekend sailings frequently sold out, but the boat was also known to sail nearly empty.
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 last season. 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 of capacity, and happened most often on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. A handful of times, it sailed with just one or two passengers on board.
Data from the pilot year showed people weren’t interested in taking the boat to and from work. The updated schedule caters to weekend events, sports games, date nights and other entertainment options.
The Florida Department of Transportation previously 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.
HMS Ferries is also pitching a multi-route, four-dock year-round operation that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base. Hillsborough County Commissioners voted earlier this month to transfer the planning for that project to the county’s transit agency. Its future is unknown.
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Related story: The agency that runs Hillsborough’s buses will also run its ferries
Mayor Kriseman repeated his interest Wednesday in having multiple boats running the St. Petersburg to Tampa route to allow for more frequent trips.
“We’ve seen the growth in ridership, we’re having a good economic impact...and we’re getting ridership on both sides, but also now we’re starting to get riders outside of the Tampa Bay area, which is great,” Kriseman said. “The biggest problem we have, honestly, is that people complain it’s sold out and they can’t get on it.”
“It’s a good problem,'' he said, "but I look forward to the day when we don’t have just one boat, but we have multiples.”
The boat is scheduled this fall to return to its original Hillsborough location at the Tampa Convention Center. That change will allow the ferry to run more often on Sundays, now that they boat will no longer be competing against cruise ship sailings.
Kriseman is hoping the St. Petersburg dock will move to the city’s new pier, which is currently under construction, for the 2020-2021 season.
“Especially with the new pier district opening, I think there’s going to be a lot more people down there visiting the pier than we’ve ever had,” Kriseman said. “Having an easier way of getting directly to the pier district is going to be fantastic.”