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  1. Opinion

Tampa Bay ferry is fun. It’s not real mass transit. | Editorial

It’s a nice amenity, but it costs taxpayers too much.
The Cross-Bay Ferry has started its third season running passengers between Tampa and St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
The Cross-Bay Ferry has started its third season running passengers between Tampa and St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Nov. 4, 2019

By one imprecise measure, the Cross-Bay Ferry that has kicked off its third season is a nice amenity that shows off the region as it shuttles riders between St. Petersburg and Tampa. By another measure -- cold, hard costs -- it is a government boondoggle. And by any measure, it is not the robust regional transit public officials should be pursuing and Tampa Bay desperately needs to compete.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Caitlin Johnston reported Sunday, taxpayers on both sides of the bay are paying a steep price for the ferry. Taxpayers spent $34.27 for each ride a person took during its first six-month season in 2016-17. While that cost dropped to $14.23 per boarding last year, that is still indefensibly expensive in a region with more pressing priorities and daily traffic jams on the bridges.

Tampa Bay’s bus systems are less than robust and too often viewed as a last resort for low-income residents. While the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority stands to benefit from the county’s recent 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is starving for cash. Yet while taxpayers paid $14.23 per ferry boarding last year, the similar cost per passenger was $6.17 for HART and $4.94 for PSTA. Are public officials really more interested in spending public money on pleasure cruises than to help commuters get to work?

At this point, Tampa Bay does not have one viable bus rapid transit line. The proposed line that would connect downtown St. Petersburg with the beaches still awaits federal funding, and there are legitimate concerns about its potential success. Yet even it projects a per boarding cost of just $3.16. It could wind up being four times the cost and still not match the subsidy for the ferry.

Getting a serious conversation started about light rail that could link Tampa and St. Petersburg is even more difficult. The scars remain from failed referendums for county rail systems in both Hillsborough and Pinellas over the last decade, even as traffic has gotten worse. The state also isn’t any help. The Department of Transportation is determined to move forward with express toll lanes on Interstate 275 in Hillsborough and Pinellas, and state lawmakers are focused on toll roads to nowhere. Yet the cost per boarding for light rail systems in Denver, Charlotte and other metro areas that are Tampa Bay’s competitors is significantly less than the $14.23 per ferry boarding. Where is the long-term vision?

To be sure, the ferry is a nice attraction. The views of the downtown skylines from the water are beautiful, and most riders are local residents using the ferry for leisure. The $150,000 subsidies by Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg are modest in the big picture. There also are arguments about what financial metric to use to fairly evaluate the cost, even though the cost per boarding is a widely accepted measure for all modes of transit.

The bottom line remains the same: The ferry costs taxpayers too much, and public officials should refocus on real transit options instead of pleasure cruises.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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