Caitlin Johnston, Times Staff Writer
The crowd of politicos buzzed on the deck of the Cross-Bay Ferry as it made its first journey Tuesday from the Vinoy Basin in downtown St. Petersburg across the bay to downtown Tampa.
The wind whipped around them. Women searched for hair ties as groups huddled close, shouting over the din of the engine.
“I can’t believe how fast it’s going,” said Pat Kemp, transportation advocate and Hillsborough County Commission candidate.
“The future right here, baby,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, looking across the water toward Tampa’s skyline. “This is it.”
It was a 50-minute journey full of expectations. To many, the trip represented not just a cruise across Tampa Bay, but a glimpse of what life could be look like if people had more transportation options than just driving their cars.
Transportation has dominated the regional conversation for years, but progress has been slow. Project after project has either stalled as leaders fallback on conducting more studies or crumbled altogether when pressed by the opposition.
Both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have seen transportation referendums defeated by voters in the past six years, and in April the Hillsborough County Commission wouldn’t even let voters consider a new one. Meanwhile congestion worsens every year as more cars fill roads that local governments can’t afford to fix.
Those who look elsewhere for options find their choices are limited. The region’s bus systems are criticized for infrequent service and too few routes. Light rail has become a dirty word. Some have even talked about gondolas.
Those riding the ferry Tuesday morning were all too aware of how Tampa Bay’s overloaded and inadequate transportation network impacts the region.
“Every time people talk about us, it’s always, ‘But they don’t have a transit system,'” Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club Chair Kent Bailey said. “We’re never at the top of any of those lists.”
“The buses don’t run enough,” Tampa City Council member Yolie Capin said. “Or the trolley. Whatever we have that’s there doesn’t run sufficiently.”
As far as options go, the ferry could be an attractive one. The trip was smooth, the bathrooms clean and the view hard to beat. There are plenty of chairs and tables to work on. There are plans to seel beer and wine. Snacks, too. People can bring their bikes on board, which makes getting to their destinations easier on land. And the onboard WiFi makes it easy to respond to emails or post selfies during the voyage.
But concerns about the frequency and reliability of ferry travel will be an issue as people test it out during the six-month trial period. The 98-foot catamaran will make two or three roundtrips each day, with weekday hours focusing on commuter times and weekend trips catered more toward evening events.
One issue: Those who take the boat over to Tampa at 7 a.m. on a weekday will have to wait until 5:15 p.m. for the return trip. That can be difficult to depend on, said Katharine Eagan, CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.
“The success of this is going to be tied to how quickly you can get back during the day if something happens,” Eagan said. “A boat going back and forth makes sense during rush hour, but you’re going to need a reliable service to get you back during the day if the water main breaks or the school calls and your kid is sick.”
That means other parts of the regional transportation network — such as busses, trolleys and rideshares — need to be robust enough for people to rely more on.
The cost of the $1.4 million pilot project was split four ways between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa. But its long-term success rests on finding a sustainable funding source, said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“The governments can’t subsidize this for the duration,” said Buckhorn, who greeted the ferry at the dock in Tampa, but did not ride it. “Ultimately, the private sector is going to have to step up and assume this.”
Some investors have already come forward. Frontier Communications will sponsor free rides every third Sunday during the pilot program.
There has also been talk about one of the local professional sports teams joining as investors. The dock in Tampa is a short walk to Amalie Arena, and from the St. Petersburg dock passengers can ride the Central Avenue Trolley to Tropicana Field. It costs just 50 cents to avoid walking two miles. Bike rentals are also available at each dock. There are plans to adjust the schedule for special events.
Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who boarded in Tampa and rode back to St. Petersburg, praised the new option connecting the two downtowns. But does that mean he’ll invest in the ferry?
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Vinik said.
State and federal funding is available to help pay capital costs, such as buying more boats, but Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Paul Steinman, who oversees the bay area’s district, said that depends on whether ridership during the pilot program reveals a strong demand for ferry service.
“If people aren’t going to use it,” he said, “then obviously it’s not going to be something we’re going to invest in.”
The ferry runs through April 30. Then local leaders will then have to decide if there is enough interest in the project and funding available to continue, and possibly expand, the service.
“We need all of you to do everything you can to get people to try it out,” Kriseman told passengers after the ferry returned to St. Petersburg. “I know all they have to do is get on this boat and experience this ride and they’re going to fall in love with it.”