1. Transportation

Ferry service in Tampa Bay set to become 'permanent'

Ferry service linking downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg is apparently here to stay.

The Cross-Bay Ferry previously operated between November and April. But year-round ferry service connecting the two cities is now in the works, according to Ed Turanchik, the former Hillsborough County Commissioner and a policy adviser for the ferry operator.

"It's pretty special," Turanchik said in an interview. "That's all I can say about it at this point."

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More details are expected to be released at a news conference 2 p.m. Tuesday on the bow of the vessel as it docks behind the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The ferry was poised to wrap up its second round of service on April 30 after it took a year off in 2017-18.

The transit service first launched in 2016, with the vision of connecting two vibrant downtowns through the area's most defining quality: the waters of Tampa Bay. The inaugural season posted solid numbers but made it clear that there was no market for commuter service, at least not while only one boat is running only a handful of times a day.

The governments of Hillsborough and Pinellas County and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg teamed up with the Florida Department of Transportation to bring service back in November. The four local governments contributed $150,000 each, while the state awarded a $438,000 grant that can be spread out over three years.

Revenue from ticket sales is returned to local governments to help cover their initial investment. During the pilot season, each government received about $30,000 of their $350,000 contribution back.

This time, organizers focused on the ferry's strongest routes from the pilot: nights and weekends. They also dropped the price of a one-way ticket from $10 to $8.

The result, as of halfway through the season, was higher numbers and more sold out trips.

The ferry sold more than 23,000 tickets between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, according to data maintained by operator HMS Ferries. That's a 40 percent increase in ridership compared to the first half of its pilot season.

January alone saw a 70 percent jump in ticket sales from the first year.

The vessel holds up to 149 people and takes 50 minutes to sail between the two cities. The boat typically makes four round trips on Fridays and Saturdays and two round trips on other days. It does not sail on Mondays.

Turanchik sent out a news release late Monday saying the Tuesday announcement would be about "permanent ferry service."

He declined to address additional questions, such as whether the announcement means the ferry will keep running May 1 or if there will be a break as the governments and HMS Ferries prepare for year-round service in Tampa Bay. Those details will have to wait for the news conference.

"Just come," Turanchik said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at Follow @cljohnst.