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Cross-Bay Ferry ridership nearly doubles, but leaders disagree on what’s next

Halfway through its second November-April season, the Tampa-St. Pete ferry has nearly surpassed its entire first-year ridership.
Now in its second year, the Cross-Bay Ferry sails daily, November through April, from St. Petersburg to Tampa and back. Ridership so far this year has nearly doubled over the same period last year. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The ferry connecting the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg continues to add tens of thousands of passenger trips each season, but its future as a permanent, year-round option remains uncertain.

Just halfway into the 2020 season, the Cross-Bay Ferry is close to surpassing ridership from its entire first year according to data maintained by the operator HMS Ferries.

During the boat’s pilot season, it provided about 39,000 passenger trips. Since then, the numbers have continued to rise as organizers tweak the schedule, lower prices and adjust docking locations.

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

This year, the ferry logged more than 33,000 rides by Feb 1, the halfway point of the season. That’s a 43 percent increase in ridership compared to this point last year. Officials had previously hoped to see ridership surpass 60,000 passenger trips before the season ends April 30.

“The numbers for the Cross-Bay Ferry speak for themselves,” St. Petersburg City Council Member Darden Rice said. “Ridership numbers are climbing since we started the pilot.”

Rice said she and others hope the ferry will continue and expand, providing another transportation option that can connect more people across Tampa Bay.

Local governments and the Florida Department of Transportation have already committed money for a fourth season, but the ferry’s future beyond that is unknown.

The boat carries 149 passengers on a 50-minute one-way ride between the two downtowns. There’s a bar on board, along with light snacks and tables for enjoying the views. It has become a popular option for fans attending Tampa Bay Lightning games, locals looking to avoid traffic on the bridges, or tourists who want to explore a neighboring city.

Related: A new focus on weekend trips has passengers flocking to the Cross-Bay Ferry

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

The ferry has withstood high winds and storms during sailings, even maintaining service during tornado warnings last week that closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The boat kept its appointed schedule, leaving Tampa at 10:45 p.m. with a sold-out ferry full of Lightning fans returning to St. Petersburg.

“The ferry did well, though the ride was a bit choppy compared to typical normal smooth trip,” said Kevin Fisher, project manager for HMS Ferries, operator of the Cross-Bay Ferry. “Our passengers expressed their relief that the ferry was running, and the crew reported that they received more than their regular share of ‘thanks’ upon arrival in St. Petersburg.”

Tampa City Council Member Guido Maniscalco has supported the ferry since its inaugural season and said he was encouraged to see the ridership numbers continue to rise each year.

“I think it’s a worthy investment, and I’m always open to supporting it either for a permanent service or continuing it even if it’s seasonal because I see that the public is using it,” Maniscalco said. “It seems to get stronger and stronger as time passes and more people learn about it.”

But not everybody is convinced the service is worthy of additional funding beyond next year.

Pinellas Commissioner Kathleen Peters, one of only two elected officials to vote against funding the latest round of service, has previously spoken out about the public subsidy the ferry receives.

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 state Department of Transportation.

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

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said he’d consider supporting additional seasons if ridership continues to grow, but he’s not on board yet with making the ferry a permanent transportation option.

Miller said he’s concerned about the hit to the county’s budget, especially as the Florida Supreme Court considers whether to overturn a Hillsborough transportation tax that would raise an expected $280 million a year for transit, bike, pedestrian and road projects.

“I think the year-round service is going to have a major cost to it,” Miller said. “I don’t know, with the way our budget is right now and with the Supreme Court still debating the transportation tax ... right now it would have to be looking at a seasonal option.”

Supporters say permanent service would be much less expensive than the current seasonal set-up if officials were willing to expand and loop in two different docks as part of a plan to bring ferries to MacDill Air Force Base.

Under that proposal, HMS Ferries would take on all operating costs and local governments would be responsible for capital costs, such as four boats and new docks. Local governments would own the fleet. The idea has been championed by former Hillsborough County commissioner Ed Turanchik, who has worked as an attorney for HMS Ferries.

But Hillsborough commissioners have repeatedly pushed back that proposal, referring any decision to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Related: HART board fires chief executive after investigation of whistleblower complaint

The transit agency is in flux, with board members voting last week to fire their chief executive after a report found he violated a number of agency policies.

The agency’s interim CEO Carolyn House Stewart said during a board meeting last week that Turanchik is expected to give a presentation on the four-dock, year-round service at an upcoming strategic planning committee.

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