CLEARWATER — Armed with an array of facts and figures, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has begun a tour of local governments to rally support for the Cross-Bay Ferry.
The mayor is asking participating local governments — St. Petersburg, Tampa, Pinellas County and Hillsborough County — for $286,000 apiece to keep the popular program afloat for the next two years. The project is expected to cost $149,000 this year and $136,000 next year, when the money would have to be reapproved.
Kriseman started his campaign at Tuesday's Pinellas County Commission meeting. According to statistics cited by the mayor, ridership increased from about 40,000 riders during season one of the program, 2016-2017, to about 52,000 during season two, 2018-2019. (No ferry service was offered in 2017-2018.)
"The most frequent complaint that I've received over the last year has been the fact that people have had trouble getting on the boat because it's been sold out," Kriseman said. "That is a good problem to have."
The service, which is operated by HMS Ferries, runs seasonally, from November to April. The ship carries up to 149 people. It costs $8 for a 50-minute one way trip across the bay; discounts are offered to seniors, active military, college students and kids.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she supports the program, but she would like to see more tourists riding the boat. A survey of customers showed that most passengers come from the area, Peters said.
Kriseman said he hopes the ferry service can eventually expand to include more boats and more options for customers. The mayor even floated the possibility of a commuter ferry option down the line.
Before the program's pilot season, local governments were asked to chip in $350,000 for just the first year. Now that the program has secured a state grant — and has proven to generate revenue for HMS — the burden on local governments has lessened, Kriseman said.
"I think we are very favorably inclined towards continuing to support this," County Commission chairwoman Karen Seel said. "Of course, that will be dependent on the other governments participating."
Kriseman said he's been in contact with officials from both cities and Hillsborough County, and he's optimistic they'll agree to chip in their share of funding.
"Support seems to be pretty widespread," Kriseman said. "In fact, there's several who, historically, have voted 'no' that indicated they're voting 'yes.'"