The Cross Bay Ferry is a fun amenity. It’s another novelty in a coastal metropolis and a natural fit for Tampa Bay’s two bustling downtowns. But when is the ferry going to stand on its own? And more importantly, can it become what its promoters have hawked as a conduit for regional transit? Local officials need to determine what’s possible and more clearly define the government’s role in bringing this private venture to life.
The ferry dilemma was underscored last month after the Pinellas County Commission voted unanimously to change the terms of its participation in hopes of reducing the amount of money that taxpayers contribute to the service. Local governments have been subsidizing the ferry since its pilot season in 2017. That money was intended to get a new service up and running, to explore the potential for more routes and regional stops and to start building a customer base that could make the ferry financially viable long-term.
Under the current plan, seasonal service would return for the coming year, from October to May, with subsidies accounting for $760,000 to the ferry operator, HMS Ferries Inc. Three local government partners — Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg and Tampa — would contribute 25 percent each, with individual shares rising from $190,000 in 2022-23 to $255,000 in 2024-25. Pinellas County would contribute about 5 percent of the total subsidy, with the Florida Department of Transportation making up the difference.
Changing the funding formula, though, doesn’t change the fact that area taxpayers are continuing to subsidize a private service with dubious public benefits. The ferry is not — despite its supporters’ claim — “public transportation,” and discontinuing the tax subsidies is hardly “a step backward from relieving roadway congestion.” This is a publicly funded, 50-minute leisure cruise, not mass transit. According to Pinellas County, 85 percent of riders, which totaled about 62,000 this year, use the Wednesday-Sunday service on weekends. That doesn’t much help workweek commuters on the Howard Frankland Bridge. And according to a survey released in April by Hillsborough County, the top activity for ferry riders (76 percent) was dining out; 60 percent said they visited Tampa or St. Pete only because the ferry was available. They weren’t going to make the drive from one city to the other. So let’s quit mischaracterizing the boat as congestion relief.
The tax subsidies for the seasonal ferry are relatively small in overall government budgets. While it’s not mass transit, the ferry is a plus for some bars, restaurants, stores and museums in the two downtowns. It certainly adds to the tourist experience. And it contributes to the what-if mentality that drives civic ambition.
But local governments need to explain what these subsidies are bringing for the public buck. What’s the compelling public interest for government to continue investing in such a niche business? Why should any handout be so open-ended for years? Let’s at least be honest about what the ferry is — and isn’t — and where this venture is going. Taxpayers need to see a good reason for this ongoing expense before they are asked for further subsidies.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.