Hillsborough County Commissioners sounded impressed by the relative success of the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project between Tampa and St. Petersburg that concludes at the end of this month, but whether they are prepared to spend another $350,000 to fund a repeat performance later this year remains uncertain.
After hearing a presentation from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose leadership led to the project happening, the board passed a motion to have County Administrator Mike Merrill review whether the board can find the funds to subsidize its portion of the four-government pilot project later this year.
Curbing his enthusiasm somewhat, Kriseman began his address to the Board by acknowledging that the ferry is hardly the solution to the Tampa Bay area’s vexing transportation issues. “It is simply an additional tool in our toolbox that works toward those solutions that I think all of us seek and know that we’ve got those challenges that we’ve got to address if we’re going to grow out counties and our region,” he said.
The St. Petersburg mayor, who is running for re-election this year, unveiled a PowerPoint presentation filled with statistics to measure who has actually taken the ferry over the past five-and-a-half months. At the end of March, more than 31,000 people had ridden on the ferry, with organizers hoping the total number could hit 40,000 before it ends in 12 days.
Kriseman said that expectations were low for people to commute to work on the ferry, especially with the project using only one boat. During weekdays the service offers only two full round trips, with three on the weekends.
The visit to the Hillsborough Commissioners was the mayor’s second appearance before one of the four local governments who contributed the $350,000 to get the project with HMS Global Maritime rolling last fall. He will visit the Tampa City Council next week.
The survey shows that 90 percent of passengers were Tampa Bay residents, but Board Chairman Stacy White said he wanted those numbers broken down further by zip code, questioning how many people living in the outlying parts of both counties were using the service, vs. those living in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Nearly everyone – 95 percent – said they enjoyed the experience.
The ferry has had a farebox recovery rate of 35 percent. That’s higher, Kriseman noted, than the standard farebox recovery for bus systems, which is around 20 percent. (Farebox recovery is the proportion of the amount of revenue generated through fares by its paying customers as a fraction of the cost of its total operating expenses).
One of the biggest disappointments was that the ferry was inoperable during high profile events like Gasparilla and the Saturday before the national college football playoff game. Kriseman said that the lack of a permanent docking station was the culprit. The ferry has been taking off the Vinoy Basin in St. Petersburg, and dropping off passengers next to the Tampa Convention Center.
Commissioner Les Miller noted that the passenger loads were less than filled to capacity in the opening weeks of the ferry service, but grew noticeably in recent months. What changed, he asked Kriseman.
The mayor acknowledged that the reduction of the fare had a considerable influence on ridership, dropping one-way tickets from $10 to $5 on weekdays, but he said he thought the number one factor was the awareness and word of mouth factor.
The local governments will not get their $350,000 back, but they will collect some funds to reduce the subsidy when it ends later this month. As of the end of March, more than $111,000 was scheduled to be returned to Tampa, St. Pete, Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, with the mayor predicting they will receive a check back for approximately $30,000. “It rarely pays for itself,” he said of transportation outlays, a comment frequently invoked by local officials advocating for light-rail in recent years.
An optimistic Kriseman said in addition to ferry service in Hillsborough County and from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg, he also mused about ferries running from St. Pete to the Westshore area of Tampa. “Not only giving people the opportunity to go to work in Westshore, but also to take a shuttle to Tampa International Airport and not have to rent a car.”
“This was one of the best reports that have come back to us that we’ve made,” enthused Commissioner Sandy Murman after Kriseman’s presentation. Murman reminded the public that the board did approve a proposal two weeks ago to move forward on a much delayed public-private partnership ferry plan to take passengers from South County to MacDill Air Force Base, then to St. Petersburg.
“I don’t know if we can go up to $350,000 the next round,” she admitted about a similar Tampa-St. Pete Cross-Bay Ferry project for 2017-2018. “I think we’re building a very solid case for continuing this.”
“The wife and daughter and I enjoy our moments crossing the bay on the ferry, ” said Commissioner Victor Crist. ” They’re memorable moments.”
Merrill said that “there are enormous needs and enormous opportunities,” regarding the upcoming budget discussions, but said that the Cross-Bay Ferry project would fit into the “return on investment category” in the budget, where it could hopefully recoup all of their investment next year.
“It’s probably a little bit early to judge how this would fit with all the others (budgetary issues) because we haven’t really finalized all of the work that we plan to bring back on May 9th,” Merrill said, adding that his staff will seriously look at the funding request.