Ferry tale: The cross-bay ferry launches, now we all just have to remember to ride it

As Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco put it as they stood on the top deck of the catamaran that was pulling away from St. Petersburg's Vinoy Basin, Ed Turanchik was beaming like a child on Christmas morning.

The vessel in which they were riding, along with dozens of local dignitaries and members of the local press, was making its maiden voyage across Tampa Bay on a sunny, warm day (though the further out into the bay the vessel ventured, the more the wind whipped through its open-air spots.

It was the launch of what officials hope will be a popular option for locals and tourists to get across the bay.

The Cross Bay Ferry, a twin-hull aluminum catamaran named Provincetown IV (the vessel's point of origin) will carry up to 149 passengers across the bay, two to three roundtrips a day at ten bucks a rider ($8 for children).

Turanchik had for years been advocating for Hillsborough County to adopt a ferry service between the southern part of the county to MacDill Air Force Base, and that may still be in the cards — especially if the cross-bay pilot is able to draw enough ridership to put it in the black.

To him, offering travel by water as an option for getting around the region has long been a no-brainer, he said as the Provincetown IV quietly glided over the water

“This is cheap, fast, wonderful, congestion-proof, elegant transportation, and there's no reason we shouldn't have 14 ferries running around this bay in about three years from now,” he said.

It was clear most people on board was not averse to spending a Tuesday morning in some sterile office or stuffy banquet hall. Turanchik said the cheer in the air over the ferry launch hints at the widespread excitement over the revisited transportation mode once again making a debut.

“Look around here, people are having a great time,” he said “People staying in Ybor can go to the beach. People staying at the beach can go to Ybor without ever using their car. That's the future.”

While Turanchik has long been a cheerleader for the concept, it was St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman who was the catalyst.

With millions in settlement money resulting from the 2010 BP oil disaster on hand, Kriseman suggested that St. Petersburg, Tampa, Hillsborough County and Pinellas County each offer up $350,000 to get a pilot project going.

Each party agreed, and here we are.

“It's been a dream of mine for a long time, but it can't happen without having great partners in the city of Tampa, Pinellas County, Hillsborough County, and all of us coming together and doing something that's never been done,” Kriseman said. “At least, I can't think of when it's ever happened, where we've all worked together for a common cause, which is to benefit all the residents of the Tampa Bay area.”

It may actually be the first time those entities have actually undertaken something as one region, even as some officials have been calling for a regional mindset for years, given all there is to offer on both sides of the bay.

Contrast that with years of relative inaction in dealing with the region's notorious gridlock and tendency to treat traffic woes by building more roads while neglecting to provide alternatives to driving a car.

The ferry may keep a few dozen cars off the Howard Frankland each day, but it won't touch Tampa Bay's transit woes. It might, however, help make people think differently about how they get around the Tampa Bay area.

“Obviously this is new, this is novel, this is something that should have been done a long time ago, but ultimately this isn't going to solve our transportation problem. This is going to move people from one downtown to another. The larger transportation issue has got to be resolved. And for those that would continue to keep their heads in the sand, I would tell you that's not the solution,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn moments after the boat docked in Tampa.

“This is exactly what we need more of in the years and decades ahead,” said Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is funding a billion-dollar redevelopment project blocks away from where passengers debark in Tampa. “We have a great region here, population growing two, two and a half percent a year.”

Two to three times a day, the ferry will shuttle riders between St. Pete Museum of History and the Tampa Convention Center. At either end of the route, of course, are multiple attractions within walking distance or a short bus, trolley or Uber ride away.

And the ride itself is obviously an attraction.

“The ride, and the view of those skylines: you don't get that when you're sitting in traffic on the bridge. It's just another reason why it makes sense to have this alternative,” Kriseman said.

It all sounds wonderful, but there is a catch: people have to ride it — local governments planted the seed by investing in the pilot program, but it's not likely they'll put money into the concept over the long term, especially if demand is low.

“It's got to be supported by customers,” Buckhorn said. “So I'm hopeful, which is why we did this pilot program, to see what the usage would be. But I'm confident that once people get to experience this, and they get to see pretty amazing downtowns, they'll be using these on a regular basis.”

Cross-Bay ferry service will be available to the general public starting Friday, Nov. 4, but will be weekends-only through Nov. 26. Weekday (Monday-Thursday) will leave St. Pete at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. and will leave Tampa at 9:30 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. On Fridays, it will leave St. Pete at 5:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. and leave Tampa at 6:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays it will have three roundtrips that leave St. Pete at 2:30, 5:15 and 9:15 p.m., with the latest departure from Tampa being 10:30 p.m. Sunday's roundtrips will be at 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10 for adults and $10 for kids, and every third weekend will be free. Visit crossbayferry.com for more.

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