Tampa to St. Petersburg ferry to expand to year-round service

The ferry, offering rides six months per year, would begin 12-month operations in 2024.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January 2019. Under a contract proposal, the seasonal ferry would expand to provide year-round service over the next four years.
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January 2019. Under a contract proposal, the seasonal ferry would expand to provide year-round service over the next four years. [ Times (2019) ]
Published June 14, 2021|Updated June 14, 2021

The Cross Bay Ferry will be crossing Tampa Bay more times each year under a new contract proposal.

The seasonal ferry, linking St. Petersburg and Tampa, would expand to year-round service in fall 2024, according to the tentative agreement between Hillsborough County and HMS Ferries Inc.

Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled to vote on the proposal Wednesday, and Pinellas County and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg also must approve their financial contributions before the contract is final.

Since 2018, the Cross Bay Ferry has operated from Nov.1 to April 30, providing transportation for up to 149 passengers per trip on excursions between the Tampa Convention Center and the Vinoy Basin. The former three-year agreement expired last month, and Hillsborough County took the lead in negotiating an extension.

The new deal calls for HMS to extend its end-of-season operations from April 30 to May 31 in 2023 and to June 30 in 2024. Year-round service would begin Oct. 1, 2024, through Sept. 30, 2025, the final year of the four-year contract.

Related: Cross Bay Ferry ridership nearly doubles

“I’m just very, very pleased that we are moving in that (year-round) direction,” said Commission Chair Pat Kemp. “It’s in high demand. People have responded and it will be great for the entire region.”

Ferry riders also endorsed the proposed expansion.

Kay Howell, 67, who lives in the Lake Magdalene area of Hillsborough County, said she has become known as the ferry princess and rides the boat five to 10 times each season for outings in St. Petersburg.

“Tampa Bay is one area and I’m so glad to see us finally connected over the waters, over our beautiful bay,” she said. “I just love it. I would definitely embrace the year-round service.”

The increased service also comes with an increased cost. The proposed contract calls for government subsidies to increase from $700,000 in the first year to just more than $1 million when year-round service begins.

Costs to the four local governments are split evenly, but could be reduced if the state Department of Transportation contributes. Additionally, the four local governments would each receive 12.5 percent of the ticket revenue after it exceeds $400,000.

When Hillsborough commissioners voted in April to negotiate with HMS, only Commissioner Stacy White dissented, saying he thought the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg should carry more of the expense since they were the prime beneficiaries. He said Monday that his position hasn’t changed.

“That is correct. I think the two cities should pay more than the two counties,” White said in a text message.

Related: Hillsborough commission tosses life jacket to ferry plan

During its 2020-21 season, the ferry operated Wednesday through Sunday and charged $10 for a one-way, 50-minute trip between the two downtowns.

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.

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“With the ferry,” said Howell, “the journey is part of the enjoyment.”

The contract proposal to be considered Wednesday is separate from the issue of whether HMS would operate a four-boat commuter ferry service between south Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa. The county has hired consultant Kimley-Horn for a $100,000 study on the feasibility of that proposal.