1. Opinion

Pat Kemp: Hillsborough should stay the course with the Tampa Bay ferry plan

The Cross Bay Ferry has completed its second seasonal service crossing Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg to Tampa. The service has been a roaring success, with more than 50,000 people using the ferry to cross the bay and many of the trips sold out well in advance.

As vice chair of the Hillsborough County Commission, and a board member of HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit) as well as a long time environmental and transit advocate, I am in full support of the Tampa Bay passenger ferry project as a year-round permanent transit option for the region. The ferry is an exceptional and low-cost transit option that we can start up quickly without any new local or state operating subsidies.

We have become one of the fastest growing metro areas in the nation, in large part due to our big beautiful bay and waterways, but we have failed to take advantage of the unique opportunity we have to move people by water. Other metro areas are growing strong transit systems such as Phoenix, Austin, Charlotte, Denver and Portland. However, none of those metro areas have the opportunity we do: a breathtaking bay that can move great numbers of people while requiring little infrastructure investment. It's time for the Tampa Bay take advantage of our unique environment and build a great transit system that includes ferry service.

Tampa Bay's central transit planning challenge is creating congestion proof rights of way to allow people to avoid our increasing gridlock. Using the water is a common sense option that we have too long ignored. I'll continue to work hard to stand up a Tampa Bay passenger ferry project which includes both MacDill Air Force Base commuter service and evening and weekend service between St. Petersburg, Tampa and south Hillsborough County.

The Tampa Bay ferry commuter line to MacDill will take thousands of cars off our roadways every day, and help the military families who live in south county avoid arduous hour long commute to the base each morning and afternoon. The support for this ferry at MacDill is incredibly strong, with over 90 percent in support, and it is an official Department of Defense Community Partnership project.

The ferry project is a great deal for taxpayers. It can be built for a capital cost that is less than widening any roadway, or building a comparable bus system. It doesn't require local or state tax dollars to subsidize operations, because HMS Ferries has committed to cover the operating costs from ticket revenues. This will make it the only transit system in Florida that doesn't require a local operating subsidy.

According to the proposal, after the ferries complete the MacDill commuter schedule, they shift over to weeknight and weekend service, providing new connectivity between South Hillsborough County and the greater Brandon area and, downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg. Diverting recreational, tourism and event traffic off our roadways and bridges during the evening rush hour reduces congestion and is a great opportunity for residents and tourists who would like to enjoy our cities, but don't want to sit in traffic congestion on the bridge to get to our downtowns.

The will also be good for our downtown economies, including restaurants, retailers, cultural institutions and sports teams. A ridership survey taken after the first season of the Cross Bay Ferry showed that most ferry riders spent between $25 and $40 per person at their destination. Nearly 75 percent went to dinner, about a third attended a cultural event or shopped, and 15 percent took the ferry to a sporting event. Recognizing that commuter ferry service from south county to MacDill is a critical transit connection, the Greater Tampa Chamber made ferry service a top Chamber priority.

The first two seasons of the Cross Bay Ferry service demonstrated that people want this service. In this most recent season, trips from St. Petersburg to Tampa on Lightning game nights were often sold out. Half or more of the runs on Fridays and Saturdays were also sold out. The best part: the Cross Bay Ferry provides people the opportunity to avoid the Howard Frankland Bridge.

The strong evening and weekend ridership on the Cross Bay Ferry is one of the reasons that HMS Ferries has taken the unprecedented step of making a twenty year commitment to operate a region wide plan without any state or local operating subsidies. This is good news, and this is a project we should all get on board to support.

Pat Kemp is a Hillsborough County commissioner.