Starting this week, people will finally have a way to cross Tampa Bay that doesn't involve driving on one of the area's congested bridges.
The Cross-Bay Ferry departs on its maiden voyage at 10 a.m. today from the Vinoy Basin in St. Petersburg. But that trip is only for elected officials, transportation leaders, business groups and other designated "VIPs."
The general public will have to wait until Friday to test out the region's latest transportation option. For the first three weeks, anyone can ride the ferry on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; the other days of the week are reserved for investors, businesses and other designated groups.
The 98-foot catamaran will carry up to 149 passengers on a 50-minute trip across the bay to a dock adjacent to the Tampa Convention Center.
Trips will be free the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving, though the ferry will not operate on the holiday.
Regular service for the pilot project will start Nov. 26 and run through April 30. Tickets cost $10 each way and go on sale Tuesday, either online or at the dock.
"This will be the first premium transit project in our region," Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "Now we're going to get to see how the community receives it and how well it does."
Those looking to try out the ferry without shelling out $20 round trip can do so for free on every third Sunday, as part of a sponsorship from Frontier Communications. The special runs every month during the pilot program.
The catamaran will run two round-trip routes on Fridays and Sundays and three on Saturdays. The latest trip from Tampa to St. Petersburg will depart at 10:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 7 p.m. on Sundays.
The ferry will also run two round trips Monday through Thursday, though those will start earlier: departing St. Petersburg at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. and returning from Tampa at 9:30 a.m. and 5:15 p.m.
Part of the purpose behind the pilot program is to test to see if commuters will use the ferry, Kriseman said.
"We'll be evaluating that real-world experience," Kriseman said. "What kind of ridership is there going to Tampa in the mornings and coming back in the afternoon? There's going to be a lot of surveying going on."
Organizers haven't announced any commuter deals yet, but have indicated specials will be announced sometime in November. The potential commuter draw is also why some business groups are booking special VIP trips in the first three weeks, Kriseman said.
"If you get businesses that have people that live on one side of the bay and work on the other to see what it's like, they may be more inclined to give the commuter part of the program a fair test," Kriseman said.
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But the main draw, Kriseman said, will likely be tourists and residents looking for entertainment options in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa.
"I think the most natural, and probably what will be the most successful at least in the short term, is those of us who want to go back and forth in the evenings or on the weekends, whether it's for a Lightning game, dinner, shopping or museums."
Several businesses will offer deals for those who use the ferry, such as a free yoga class at Body Electric Yoga Company in St. Petersburg, $5 off a bottle of liquor at Tampa Cane Distillery or 15 percent off the best-available room rate at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Ybor. That could help make the $20 round trip ticket more appealing.
And advocates are hoping to extend service hours on some nights to coordinate with events such as Lightning games.
Because it's a pilot project, Kriseman said there's flexibility when it comes to departure times.
"We have the ability and flexibility to make changes," he said. "We'll try these set times in the beginning and see what the response is and then we may make some adjustments and tweaks based on feedback."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.