The Cross Bay Ferry could set sail in the fall with Pinellas County left ashore, two Hillsborough County commissioners said.
“That’s what I’m supporting,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp.
“I’m not willing to see this whole thing go down the drain just because they (Pinellas County officials) take their ball and go home,” said Commissioner Mariella Smith.
Kemp and Smith, the Hillsborough commission’s leading advocates for the ferry service, made their comments in separate interviews with the Tampa Bay Times. Their statements followed Pinellas County commissioners’ May 10 vote to opt out of the local agreement calling for the two counties and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg to subsidize service operator, HMS Ferries.
If a new accord can’t be reached, the ferry’s current Tampa to St. Petersburg route could continue, but Pinellas’ share of the costs likely would have to be absorbed by other government agencies.
The four-year contract, approved last year, calls for the four local governments to split the $730,000 subsidy for the season beginning Oct. 1, 2022. The contribution escalates each year and HMS Ferries is scheduled to begin year-round service in 2024. The actual cost to the local governments is expected to be reduced, however, because the Florida Department of Transportation said this week it would provide a three-year $518,000 grant for the continued ferry operations beginning Oct. 1.
The ferry, which runs October to May, carried more than 62,000 passengers in the just concluded season, its best showing in its fifth year of operation.
The number of passengers has at least one other local government also thinking about taking another stab at the subsidy numbers.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor ”is a strong supporter of the ferry, but thinks renegotiating the subsidy makes sense given the terrific ridership,” her spokesman, Adam Smith, said in a text message.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch didn’t tip his hand.
“We are continuing to engage with our partner governments, including Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and are confident our discussions will yield positive results for an updated agreement,” he said in an emailed statement.
HMS Ferries’ contract is with Hillsborough County, not with the other three local governments. Renegotiating terms is up to Hillsborough, said Ed Turanchik, the company’s attorney and a former Hillsborough commissioner.
Smith and Kemp both said they didn’t understand Pinellas County’s reluctance to commit to the current contract considering the relatively small subsidy that would top out at $182,000 for the coming year.
Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long said her county’s position should be no surprise because commissioners were clear a year ago they wanted to reopen the agreement in order to have more input on the contract terms.
“I have been very, very interested in public transportation options for our citizens and I’m not so interested in just pouring our money into a seasonal tourist attraction,” Long said.
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Long said she wanted HMS to operate more than one boat to provide more timely service and to consider boat engines powered by electric, hybrid or other alternative fuels. Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton previously said HMS should explore advertising and sponsorships to reduce its reliance on government subsidies.
The May 10 Pinellas Commission vote brought an immediate rebuke from the business community. The CEOs of the Tampa Bay Chamber and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce wrote in an opinion piece published in the Tampa Bay Times and elsewhere that jeopardizing the ferry “would be a step backward from relieving roadway congestion, boosting local commerce and providing affordable travel.”
It’s not the first time Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have disagreed on how to move around people. Long is a proponent of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority’s proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit route between Wesley Chapel and St. Petersburg.
Kemp and Hillsborough commission chairwoman Kimberly Overman, who also sit on the transportation board, object because it means expanding Interstate 275 through Tampa. Smith, too, opposes adding lanes to the highway.
“It’s inexplicable to me why they (Pinellas) would pull out of this when they are so often talking the talk about the need for regional cooperation in regional transportation systems and yet with the smallest little investment in a very popular project they’re not willing to cooperate,” Smith said.
All Pinellas wants is a seat at the negotiating table, Long said.
“There’s no need for histrionics,” she said.
Hillsborough County must notify HMS by July 1 if it intends to continue with the second year of the contract.