Cost of cross-bay ferry pilot project: $1.3M for one boat, $2.2M for two

HMS Ferries would provide this 149-passenger vessel for a pilot project of ferry service between St. Petersburg and Tampa.
HMS Ferries would provide this 149-passenger vessel for a pilot project of ferry service between St. Petersburg and Tampa.
Published Jan. 6, 2016

TAMPA — Launching a six-month pilot project to determine whether cross-bay ferry service would work here would cost an estimated $1.3 million.

If St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties each kick in up to $350,000, the first ferry could launch in October with one boat making round trips between the Tampa and St. Petersburg downtown waterfronts on weekends.

To get a second boat, which St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says would be ideal, the cost would rise to $2.2 million. To cover that additional $900,000, local officials say they would need money from the Legislature.

First things first, though.

Last month, the St. Petersburg City Council approved its $350,000 pledge.

On Tuesday, Kriseman met with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in search of his city's commitment.

Maybe, Buckhorn said.

"Connecting our two downtowns is the right thing to do," Buckhorn said after an hourlong meeting with Kriseman. "I just think that we have to take a good hard look at the numbers. … I am open to the idea."

Buckhorn said he hopes to get more detailed information about the business plan for the service, the potential risk to taxpayers and ridership projections over the next couple of weeks. The City Council would have to approve any expenditure of city funds.

Kriseman is scheduled to make his case to the Hillsborough County Commission today. His staff is working to arrange a similar discussion with the Pinellas County Commission.

Kriseman also hopes to attract private-sector sponsorship for the ferry, too, including from major players like Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is working with Cascade Investment to launch a $2 billion redevelopment at the southern end of downtown Tampa.

"I certainly would love to be able to take a ferry to go to a Lightning game," Kriseman said. "There's a benefit potentially to the Lightning, and it may be worth their investment in doing a sponsorship."

St. Petersburg recently asked ferry companies to submit a plan outlining their qualifications and got one response — from HMS Ferries, based near Seattle. Since then, two companies have said the city's three-week deadline didn't give ferry providers enough time to respond.

In its 19 years, HMS has been involved in about two dozen ferries in the United States, running service in New York City and Jacksonville, among other places, and foreign countries including Japan and Canada.

For the Tampa Bay pilot project, HMS has said it would provide a 98-foot vessel that could carry 149 passengers with a cruising speed of 29 knots, or about 33 mph. HMS projects that the $1.3 million pilot program would provide an estimated 40,000 city-to-city round trips and 23,000 excursion trips over the six months.

HMS proposes to dock in front of the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the Tampa Convention Center.

The company has not indicated what passengers would pay to ride the ferry but said that would be established as its executives and local officials develop a business plan.

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Service could start in mid October, with the pilot project lasting through mid April 2017. As proposed, the ferries likely would offer scheduled weekend service with three to four round trips Fridays and four round trips Saturdays and Sundays. Excursions and charters could be scheduled during the week and for night-time events in either city.

Also Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club urged Hillsborough County commissioners to pledge money for the pilot project "without delay."

"If successful, the pilot ferry project will be an important first step towards developing a new alternative for regional public transportation," Sierra Club local chapter chairman Kent Bailey said in a letter to commissioners. "The cost is very modest, and the results will be concrete."

From the group's perspective, the ferry would not only encourage the development of other public transportation alternatives, but also would be more "resilient and adaptable" than roads in a metro area facing rising sea levels.

Contact Richard Danielson at Follow @Danielson_Times.