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Cross-Bay Ferry carries more than 6,000 paying passengers in February, the most to date

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Officials with the Cross-Bay Ferry announced Thursday more than 6,000 tickets were sold in February, the best month yet since the pilot project began operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg in November.

There was a total of 6,070 tickets purchased last month, a 57-percent rise from January, when just 3,867 people bought tickets, the lowest monthly total to date.

Overall, more than 22,000 have utilized the service since it began operations in November.

“This pilot project is meant to test all aspects of ferry service in real life — prices, times and services — and I’m very pleased with the response so far,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “Everyone I meet who has taken the ferry raves about it and asks if we can run it more often.”

The service will run through April. Then local officials in the four local governments that put up $350,000 each to help fund it — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — will have discussions about maintaining it going forward. It’s being operated in concert with Seattle-based HMS Ferries.

As with any publicly funded transit operation in the Tampa Bay area, critics are watching closely to see how the service is operating. A month ago, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said he was “unimpressed with the lack of volume of people using it.”

The ferry recently launched discounted $5 one-way tickets during weekdays, new discounts on Tampa Streetcar fares, and the Commuter Value Pass package price is also cut by 50 percent to just $2.50 per trip. Ferry managers attribute the reduced prices to being a factor with the increased ridership last month, along with better weather and “a growing awareness of the ferry as an enjoyable option for crossing the Bay.”

Project adviser Ed Turanchik says that ferry operating revenues were covering more than a third of operating costs, which is considerably higher than the operating recovery percentage of any transit system on the West Coast of Florida, including busses.

“We began testing different prices and new connectivity earlier this month,” Turanchik said. “We know that fully robust commuter service will only be possible with much more frequent service, which isn’t possible during this short test and just one boat. But now we know with the certainty of a real-life test that there is strong demand for water transportation.”

A recent survey of ferry passengers revealed that more than 90 percent of those purchasing tickets are residents and not tourists. When asked why they were taking the ferry, 77 percent said they dined when they got to their destination, 25 percent went to museums, 24 percent went shopping, and 11 percent went to a sporting event. Only 11 percent said they took the ferry exclusively for the experience, without a specific reason to travel across the bay (the numbers exceed 100 percent because ferry officials say they are not mutually exclusive activities).

The breakdown of ridership breaks down like this: 4,700 people rode the ferry in November, approximately 5,400 people in December and 3,867 in January.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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