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Plans move forward for permanent ferry service in Tampa Bay

Local lawmakers discussed the plan for nearly two hours Wednesday.
Credit: WTSP
The Cross Bay Ferry arrives in St. Petersburg, Florida.

TAMPA, Fla. — The Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to move forward with plans for a permanent ferry service between downtown St. Petersburg, downtown Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base and South Hillsborough County at Williams Park.

What is at issue is how they will go about doing it.

The motion passed by a 4-3 vote. Commissioners Stacy White, Mariella Smith, Pat Kemp and Kimberly Overman voted in favor of the plan. Commissioners Sandry Murman, Ken Hagan and Les Miller Jr. voted against it.

The commission discussed the plan for more than two hours Wednesday.

The 149-passenger ferry – which has operated seasonally from November through April – has taken riders back and forth between St. Petersburg’s North Straub Park by the Vinoy Hotel to Port Tampa Bay near the Florida Aquarium.

The Cross-Bay Ferry won’t become a permanent service until at least 2022, according to last month’s announcement by HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Corp. There are plans to expand ferry service to include Williams Park and MacDill Air Force Base.

Expansion plans call for service to operate between 12-16 hours each day, seven days a week.

The proposed MacDill Air Force Base commuter service would operate every 10-15 minutes between the base and Williams Park. It would take commuters about 14 minutes to ride on the water across Tampa Bay instead of going around the top of Tampa Bay. A roundtrip voucher would cost about $15 per day, which would cover parking, the ferry and tram service.

The Williams Park site would require the acquisition of property from the Mosaic Co. to develop a parking lot for at least 750 cars. Plans would expand parking at the site for up to 1,500 parking spaces.

Mosaic is one of the world's largest combined producers of potash and phosphates.

Murman said she had four conversations with Mosaic about acquiring the land, who she said repeatedly told her the company wasn't interested in selling the land to the county.

According to Murman, putting a commuter service at Williams Park would be a "risk and a danger" because of the infrastructure at the site.

Murman said Mosaic told her "no" and "hell no" repeatedly when she asked if the county would be able to acquire or buy the land from the company.

Toward the end of the discussion, Murman said she would soon present a plan for South Hillsborough County at a different site than Williams Park.

"There are other options than buying their property," Smith said.

"This is about who is going to be financially responsible," Murman said.

Murman and Miller wanted the Hillsborough Regional Transit Authority (HART) to be responsible for it.

HMS also stated it is not currently in a position to provide year-round service.

Overman said she wanted to see Hillsborough County, Pinellas County, Tampa, St. Petersburg and HART to have "productive conversations" with Mosaic.

Murman and Hagan said there wouldn't be enough money throughout the county for other projects without first addressing the land with Mosaic.

However, Smith said she didn't want the voters to think the commissioners who voted in favor of the permanent ferry service were, "somehow less fiscally conservative than those who oppose it."

Smith said one ferry is equal to 12 buses.

Proposals call for Hillsborough County, along with other state and local agencies, to provide $36,561,800 for year-round ferry service, which includes costs of terminals, docks, vessels and trams.

Private partners have offered to cover operating, maintenance and repair costs for a 20-year period. It’s an estimated cost of $104 million.

At least two ferries would circulate between South Hillsborough County and each downtown location. Plans say there would also be additional ferries on nights when events are scheduled at Amalie Arena or Tropicana Field.

On Monday, Cross-Bay Ferry organizers asked for the public to email commissioners to express their support of offering the service year-round. County commissioners received 315 emails in support of the project.

Hillsborough County commissioners carried a motion by a 7-0 vote for the Cross-Bay Ferry to receive reoccurring payments spread equally among Hillsborough County, Pinellas County, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The Cross-Bay ferry's ridership numbers increased to 52,528 riders for the second season from November 2018 through April 2019. It beat the first pilot run when the ferry had 40,854 riders from November 2016 through April 2017.

The ferry skipped the November 2017-April 2018 season.

Earlier this month, St. Petersburg Transportation Director Evan Mory told 10News he would know by the summer if the ferry will return for another seasonal run.

When it operates, the Cross-Bay Ferry costs riders:

  • $8 for adults
  • $5 for seniors, military (active/retired) and college students with an ID
  • $3 for children ages 5-18
  • Free for children ages 4 and younger

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