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Cross-Bay Ferry ridership tops 11,600 in first month of new season

Most of the increase is tied to an additional round-trip sailing on Sundays.
The Cross-Bay Ferry cruises along the Vinoy Yacht Basin as it heads toward Tampa. The Vinoy condominiums can be seen in the background. The city hopes to attract more vessels for entertainment and tourism to the downtown waterfront. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Cross-Bay Ferry cruises along the Vinoy Yacht Basin as it heads toward Tampa. The Vinoy condominiums can be seen in the background. The city hopes to attract more vessels for entertainment and tourism to the downtown waterfront. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Dec. 5, 2019

The third season of Tampa Bay’s Cross-Bay Ferry saw ridership increase in its first month, thanks mostly to the addition of a third round-trip on Sundays.

The more than 11,600 passenger trips taken in November between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa represent a 25-percent increase from the previous year.

The 50-minute trip has attracted passengers looking to attend events in the neighboring city, explore new restaurants or just enjoy some time on the water.

This year, organizers tinkered with the schedule a bit, dropping all sailings on Tuesdays and adding a third round-trip option on Sundays. The new schedule does allow for service on Mondays and Tuesdays when there is a Tampa Bay Lightning home game.

The restructuring led people to take an additional 1,810 trips on Sundays last month. Ridership numbers Wednesday through Saturday remained fairly consistent.

“What we know about any and all transportation projects, when you add frequency, they tend to get utilized,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman said. “Adding frequency to something that works for our citizens and our tourism and our economic development goals, you can’t complain about that.”

The ridership increase came in spite of dropping regular Tuesday sailings. But on the one Tuesday in November when the Lightning did play at home, the ferry logged 267 passenger trips. That’s about half of those that occurred during all four Tuesdays last November.

“We believe (the ferry) is a clear difference maker for fans coming from Pinellas," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said.

The six-month ferry season costs taxpayers about $750,000. The transit service is paid for with money from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Ticket prices are $8 per person, with discounts for students, children, seniors and military.

Related story: A question as the Cross-Bay Ferry returns: What do we get for the money?

Ridership between the first two seasons grew nearly 30 percent, with people making more than 52,500 trips last season. That number is expected to exceed 60,000 before the season ends April 30.

“(The November numbers) show that the longer that we have the ferry here, more and more people are starting to use it,” St. Petersburg City Council Member Darden Rice said. “This definitely puts us on track to meet our overall goal for ridership for the season. This is nothing but good news.”

More than 530 people filled out a survey after riding the ferry so far this year, sharing demographic data and why they decided to take the trip.

The surveys show 60 percent of people leaving from St. Petersburg to visit Tampa. Once there, about 20 percent said they visited Ybor City and 15 percent said they went to Amalie Arena. Sparkman’s Wharf, Armature Works and the Tampa Bay History Center were other popular destinations.

Those visiting St. Petersburg were most likely to go to Beach Drive or Central Avenue. The Vinoy Hotel, Dali Museum and St. Petersburg Fine Arts museum also saw a number of their patrons using the ferry.

About two-thirds of respondents said they spent more than $40 in their destination city.

Related story: New focus on weekend trips has passengers flocking to the Cross-Bay Ferry

Rice and Overman both support year-round service that would involve four boats sailing between South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base on weekdays and loop in St. Petersburg and Tampa on nights and weekends. The project was pitched by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, a legal representative for the ferry’s operator, HMS Ferries.

Supporters say permanent service would be much less expensive than the current seasonal set-up, with one proposal requiring local governments to pay only capital costs and HMS Ferries taking on all operating costs.

But Hillsborough County Commissioners have repeatedly tabled a deal for permanent service with MacDill Air Force Base, where local governments would own the fleet. Instead, they voted to move any decisions about the project to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

“We have sold out routes, we have climbing ridership,” Turanchik said. “This is as successful of a transit project that exists in Florida. So it boggles the mind that it’s become a personal, political football among some of the county commissioners.”