By BOBBIE O’BRIEN
Ever since Tony Jannus flew the first scheduled airline flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914, people have looked for ways to “bridge” the bay.
Now, for $10 and 50 minutes of your time, the Cross-Bay Ferry can transport you between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Public service starts Friday.
It’s a 6-month pilot program. But if it’s financially successful, the ferry service could become a permanent alternative form of travel in the bay area.
Lightning owner and downtown Tampa developer Jeff Vinik said the ferry fits into the area’s “incredible economic potential.”
“I think the critical element to help us achieve that potential is getting us to work together more and getting better transportation between us,” Vinik said before climbing on board the return voyage from Tampa to St. Pete on Tuesday.
St. Petersburg, Tampa, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties each contributed $350,000 to pay for the ferry trial. Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman considers it an investment.
“We’ve got to show our constituents that we really care about getting cars off the road and having alternative forms of transportation,” Murman said.
Tampa U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said, “The origin of the ferry service was to help connect commuters to MacDill Air Force Base. And that’s still part of the plan.”
The concept was to use the ferry to transport MacDill personnel during working hours and carry tourists and people out for a night of entertainment in the evening and on weekends.
Castor said she secured a $4.8 million federal transportation grant to help with operating and capital expenses for the Cross-Bay Ferry service. Local governments just need to demonstrate their commitment to get the grant. The funding expires in 2019.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman joined more than 100 VIPs for the 54-minute maiden voyage Tuesday that arrived at Tampa’s Convention Center docks just before 11 a.m.
“It’s one thing to drive over, you have to worry about traffic on the road, you have to worry about accidents. It’s stressful,” Kriseman said. “The ride over here was so smooth and so nice and the view as we left downtown St. Pete and as we were pulling into downtown Tampa, you don’t get that from the road.”
Kriseman walked off the gangway and was greeted with a big hug from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was excited about the new ferry service, but also looking ahead.
“Ultimately, this isn’t going to solve our transportation problem. This is going to move people from one downtown to another,” Buckhorn said. “The larger transportation issue has got to be resolved. And for those who would continue to keep their heads in the sand, I would tell you that that’s not the solution.”
The Cross-Bay Ferry service will operate for the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Thanksgiving, then it will run seven days a week until April 30, 2017.