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Cross-Bay Ferry wraps up its season today, but looks to return in a big way

Downtown St. Petersburg disappears in the distance as the Cross-Bay Ferry heads to Tampa at the start of the 2018-19 season in October. With ridership on the rise, officials want the service to return for another season in the fall, and plans are afoot for permanent, year-round service that would start in 2022. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Downtown St. Petersburg disappears in the distance as the Cross-Bay Ferry heads to Tampa at the start of the 2018-19 season in October. With ridership on the rise, officials want the service to return for another season in the fall, and plans are afoot for permanent, year-round service that would start in 2022. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

For the last time this season, the Cross-Bay Ferry sets sail between Tampa and St. Petersburg on Tuesday, boasting a substantial ridership increase from its pilot season in 2017.

Any plans to make the ferry a year-long, permanent attraction won't start until 2022 at the earliest. But St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman hopes to secure money from local governments to keep the seasonal route in place until then.

That means after today people will have to wait until Nov. 1 to take the ferry across Tampa Bay again, providing Kriseman's efforts are successful. The Florida Department of Transportation already has contributed money to last two more seasons, and the mayor is hoping local governments will agree to a multi-year contract to keep the boat running from November through April each year.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Partners propose seven-day ferry service linking Hillsborough, MacDill, Tampa, St. Pete

Kriseman said convincing local leaders to chip in should be easier this time around now that ridership is up, the cost to each government is significantly less and plans are in the works to operate the ferry year round.

Ridership increased nearly 40 percent between 2017 and 2019, according to ticket data through the April 14, the most recent number available. The ferry skipped the 2018 season after officials were unable to gather local funding in time.

"Ferry ridership is going to be significantly greater than it was during the pilot program," Kriseman said in a statement. "This is not only exciting, but final proof that utilizing our water way for transportation is a viable alternative to driving."

The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa along with Hillsborough and Pinellas counties each contributed $350,000 to pay for the ferry during its pilot season. That number dropped to $150,000 each this year. The governments are expected to receive money back, as they did in 2017, but the exact number is not yet known.

Earlier this month, lawyer and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik released a proposal to expand ferry service to include South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base in 2022. Four boats would run between the four ports year round, providing commuter service for MacDill on week days and entertainment options for the other ports on nights and weekends.

Hillsborough County would be expected to pay about $37 million to cover the docks, boats, offices and other necessary capital fees. The two companies proposing the deal, HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Corp., say they would cover more than $100 million in operating costs over 20 years.

ALSO READ: A new focus on weekend trips has passengers flocking to the Cross-Bay Ferry

Turanchik credited the success of the Cross-Bay Ferry — especially it's growth in the second year — for helping garner support for expanded ferry service in Tampa Bay.

The second year of seasonal service saw a boom in ridership, which supporters attribute to a variety of factors including a lower ticket price and more prominence in the community.

More than 48,000 people have ridden the ferry since Nov. 1, according to data maintained by the HMS ferries. March alone saw more than 12,000 riders, or close to a third of total ridership for the 2016-17 pilot.

The boat still had instances where it sailed at less than 10 percent of its 149-person capacity, but those happened most frequently during late-night trips during the week.

Online ticket sales often advertised the boat as sold out, but rarely did all 149 people board the ferry. In the last six weeks of ticket sales available (March through mid April), the boat sailed at 90 percent capacity 17 percent of the time.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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