Janelle Irwin, Reporter – Tampa Bay Business Journal
The trip leaves from the Tampa Convention Center dock at 6:30 p.m. Friday, and as of 1:30 p.m. had only 16 seats remaining of the 149 offered.
Sales indicate the first ticketed trip will likely be a sellout, which is good news for Cross Bay Ferry enthusiasts hoping for strong ridership numbers to make the case for long-term service. The current service is a six-month pilot program that will be continued only if service appears to support cost.
Three other trips have not sold as well so far. Less than 50 seats are reserved for the later 10:30 p.m. departure from Tampa. Seats are about half sold for the 5:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. departures from downtown St. Pete.
While it’s too soon to tell if these early sales will indicate success, they do represent a likely win for St. Pete. More people are buying tickets to visit St. Pete than are heading to Tampa for the evening.
The existing structure is funded by a four-way split between St. Pete, Tampa, Hillsborough County and Pinellas County governments. In order to continue beyond the six-month service already funded, more money would need to be secured. It’s unclear whether the four governments would step up again to subsidize the service.
Tampa may be out of the mix though. During a press conference Tuesday as the ferry docked in downtown Tampa for a VIP test run, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he wants to get out of the ferry business and hopes the program will be extended by private entities.
Meanwhile, supporters are already evaluating other potential ferry destinations. During a test run on Thursday, Ed Turanchik, an attorney with ferry law firm Akerman, showed off possible routes connecting downtown Tampa to MacDill Air Force Base and South Hillsborough County at the Big Bend power plant.
The run served as an opportunity to show off the boat to interested residents as well as to time how long those routes would take. Though exact estimates are hard to pinpoint because no docks exist at either site, traveling the route did give a good idea.
It took 12 minutes to travel between the likely docking site at MacDill to where docks could be erected near Big Bend. Turanchik estimates that from point to point the commute would be less than 15 minutes, far less than it would take to make that same drive.
While the boarding and disembarking process on the current ferry takes a significant amount of time and adds to the overall commute between Tampa and St. Pete, that would not be much of a factor between MacDill and South County. That’s because the route would utilize a ferry with front-end loading in which a large number of people could board simultaneously. The boat would also not have to tie off at a dock.
The run time between the South County site and downtown Tampa would take about 30 minutes. The test run was longer because it traveled through a slower channel. The trip, if secured, would use a faster route.
Cross Bay Ferry fares are $10 each way for adults and children over 13. Children under 13 ride $8 and those under 3 are free. Some worry those rates are too high to support adequate ridership, but ferry planners admit the cost could be reevaluated.
Turanchik said a commuter pack offering discounted rides will be announced Nov. 15. A survey last month asked downtown St. Pete residents about their willingness to use the service if such a package were available; more than 90 percent indicated they would.
Turanchik expects this month and December to serve as a marketing opportunity for the ferry service, noting there hasn’t been any advertising and many people still don’t know about it. He expects to gauge interest sometime in early 2017.