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Tampa Bay ferry project is a go — but for how long?

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday was the last local government to approve the proposed ferry that will connect downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa.

But now that Tampa Bay’s four biggest governments have agreed to help fund the six-month ferry program, elected leaders say it’s unlikely that they’ll divert tax dollars to extend the service beyond that time period.

The number of passengers during the 90-minute round trip will determine whether the region can sustain a permanent ferry system between the two cities. The service could start on Nov. 1 with two runs a day — three on Friday — for fares that are expected to be $10 each way.

Officials, though, say they’re unlikely to use tax dollars to extend the service beyond the initial six-month phase.

“We hope that it’s successful,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who spearheaded the project, said after Pinellas County commissioners voted 5-1 to approve the project.

“It’s not the cure to our transportation challenges. It’s just a tool.”

Each local government will cover a quarter of the $1.4 million pilot project with HMS Ferries. The deal had already been approved by Hillsborough County and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The service comes after voters on both sides of the bay have, in recent years, rejected transportation sales tax referendums.

Pinellas County and St. Petersburg are each using money from the settlement over the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon spill. Tampa’s share will come out of the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area Neighborhood Improvement Fund.

The BP money, Pinellas commissioner Ken Welch said, is not taking tax dollars from another project. And, he said, the service emphasizes the Tampa Bay region’s defining element: water.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Welch told the board. “It’s time to get our feet wet.”

Similarly, Hillsborough leaders want to see how the ferry performs before committing permanently. But there’s no money in the upcoming budget to extend it beyond these six months.

During their 20 minute discussion about the project, Pinellas commissioners asked about parking in St. Petersburg and whether the ferry could cross the bay during downpours. The vote didn’t come without skepticism from two commissioners.

Although Pat Gerard supported the pilot, she said the county can’t be expected to contribute money over a longer period. Dave Eggers rejected the deal but praised Kriseman for getting four governments to cooperate on the project. Eggers called the ferry a “high-risk” project where the market research is being “done on the fly.”

A Largo resident told the board that Kriseman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn shouldn’t expect the county to pay for “pet projects” that don’t benefit all residents.

“They got blinders on,” Geoff Moakley said about the mayors. “It’s an entertaining amenity.”

The project’s backers hope tourists and residents use the service to shuttle between the two cities. They envision St. Petersburg residents boarding the ferry to catch Tampa Bay Lightning games at Amalie Arena or Tampa visitors trying a restaurant on tony Beach Drive or bustling Central Avenue.

The ferries are only available on loan from northern cities during the winter months, limiting the length of the test program. The agreement between St. Petersburg and HMS said they will measure demand for both commuter and non-commuter services and impact on vehicle use.

The agreement is structured so HMS Ferries would get the first $125,000 of the ferry’s revenues. Anything above that would be split among the four governments.

The ferry has 149 seats, and projections show that with 25 percent ridership, each participant in the agreement would get about $50,000 back, St. Petersburg development administrator Alan DeLisle said last week. At 75 percent of capacity, each could expect to receive $200,000.

The Army Corps of Engineers still needs to approve the service by Sept. 15. St. Petersburg has an “out” in its contract with the Seattle-based HMS Ferries if the deadline is not met.

After the meeting, Kriseman said more details are being finalized for weekly and monthly passes, which could provide discounts for riders. The ferry company and city, Kriseman said, could also adjust the schedule around events at Amalie Arena, Gasparilla, the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship or the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The city also expects to survey riders on how to improve the service. Kriseman added: “Part of a pilot is to be flexible to make changes.”

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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