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Ferry gets high marks from Hillsborough commissioners looking to continue service

TAMPA — The Cross-Bay Ferry's six-month trial hasn't even ended yet and Hillsborough County commissioners are already looking to bring it back.

Commissioners on Wednesday directed county staffers to find money in next year's budget that could again contribute to a seasonal ferry connecting the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Many of them heaped praise on the project.

"It's a fun way to travel," Commissioner Victor Crist said.

The show of support for the ferry came after St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman updated commissioners with preliminary ridership figures and survey data on the habits of its users.

Kriseman wasn't asking for money — yet — but he left no doubt he hopes to bring the ferry back this November. Hillsborough, along with St. Petersburg, Tampa and Pinellas, pitched in $350,000 last year to pay for the pilot program, which is scheduled to end April 30.

"I think all of us, come May 1, are going to hear from our constituents, 'Where did the ferry go, and when does it come back,' " Kriseman said.

Wednesday's action comes as Hillsborough is negotiating its own commuter ferry project to connect south county and MacDill Air Force Base. One of the companies involved in that venture, HMS Ferries, is also behind the Cross-Bay Ferry.

Last month, Hillsborough set aside $22 million from its BP oil spill settlement with hopes it could one day go toward that project. Commissioners also want that deal to guarantee a route between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. The existing agreement with HMS Ferries and partner South Swell says the market would dictate whether that route is offered.

Even if approved, it's likely three years before full-time ferry service is running.

Kriseman said a seasonal ferry connecting the two sides of the bay would be a logical "stopgap measure" until permanent service can be made available.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said the Cross-Bay Ferry demonstrated the demand for water transportation. According to figures cited by Kriseman, the ferry has carried more than 36,000, included 5,100 in the first few weeks of April. Ridership could reach 10,000 in April, which would be the highest month during the half-year trial.

"We're building a really solid case to continue this and have ferry service for commuters," Murman said. "Especially to MacDill and east and south county."

The Hillsborough commission Wednesday did not allocate any county resources to a future ferry. Murman was optimistic that the next iteration of the project won't cost as much and governments could recoup more of their money, to which Kriseman nodded his head.

Kriseman said each locality should receive about $30,000 back this year, their share of ticket sales after the first $125,000.

Commissioner Les Miller expressed skepticism toward the ferry and the numbers Kriseman presented. He questioned if totals included free rides and said he was "perplexed" how ridership spiked after initial reports of a slow start.

Kriseman said a limited number of free rides were underwritten by private company sponsorships. He attributed improvement in ticket sales to growing awareness, tinkering with the launch times and cutting the price of a one-way ticket to $5.

"I'm not jumping up and down about ferries," Miller said, though he eventually voted to study if the county can continue to pay for it.

If the ferry is renewed, Commissioner Stacy White said Hills­borough's contribution should be proportional and localities with the most residents using the service paying the most for the project.

Data from rider surveys provided by Kriseman's office to County Administrator Mike Merrill earlier this month showed residents from 75 of the 104 Hillsborough and Pinellas ZIP codes used the service. However, they overwhelmingly reported they lived in the areas immediately around the downtown terminals — meaning the city of Tampa and not unincorporated Hillsborough.

Among the hundreds of respondents to the ridership survey, none hailed from several ZIP codes in White's east Hillsborough district.

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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