Tampa to St. Pete ferry pilot could happen by October

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn gave a thumbs-up, tentatively, to St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman's pitch touting a cross-bay ferry service that would deliver passengers to each city's respective downtowns.

Kriseman pitched a ferry pilot project in October that would launch with help from $350,000 in BP oil disaster settlement money. Buckhorn agreed to ask Tampa's City Council to earmark the same amount of money, and Kriseman is now poised to ask the Pinellas and Hillsborough county commissions to do the same. 

To the two mayors, ferry service to shuttle residents and tourists across the bay — obviously a breezy alternative to the area's oft-treacherous bridges — is a no-brainer.

“We recognize the importance of regionalism and working together in the Tampa Bay area, and how when we are united together we are much stronger, and so today we had an opportunity to talk about transportation a little bit, and recognizing if we provide our businesses, our residents and our visitors opportunities opportunities to travel back and forth between our communities more easily, that's a good thing for everyone,” Kriseman said.

If all goes well, the ferry's maiden voyage could happen this fall.

“Hopefully, if everybody is on board, no pun intended, we can get this pilot started this next October,” Kriseman said.

That is, assuming the math is right.

“Numbers are important to me. Both Mayor Kriseman and I treat the taxpayers' money as if it were our own and we need to understand what the risk is, what the return is, if the numbers are real in terms of projections," Buckhorn said. "Because ultimately if we're going to make an investment we can expect, hopefully, some return on that investment.”

St. Pete city staff will likely take the lead on determining those things, and after the city gets buy-in at the county level — which, if everything falls into place, would amount to $1.4 million or $350,000 apiece — Kriseman would have to negotiate with HMS, the sole service of its kind to apply for the contract (which critics said may have been a case of bid rigging; Kriseman and Buckhorn disagree).

Kriseman said he's shooting for a 40,000 ridership goal over a six-month trial period.

The two are also hoping the state legislature, which meets in January, will provide enough money to cover another boat to make the service more efficient. That way, there'd be more than one vessel on the bay on a given day.

The two leaders stressed regionalism Tuesday as they stood at the podium in Tampa City Hall, even if Tampa and St. Pete have lately been at odds over the Tampa Bay Rays stadium and often gently rib each other over their little differences.

“We do not look at those bridges of barriers but rather as conduits to cooperation, and we recognize that in our unity ...that we are so much more competitive, that we are complementary of each other and I can tell you for sure you will never see the demagoguery and the divisive nature of the dialogue coming from Mayor Kriseman or I,” Buckhorn said. “We both recognize that each of our downtowns are complementary.”

Such a transit option plays into both mayors' aspirations to make the Tampa Bay area less car-centric, given the gridlock and danger out on the roads, not to mention the environmental impact of having so many people depending on cars to get around.

“Both Mayor Kriseman and I have talked about creating more mobility options," Buckhorn said. "That's why we are big supporters of rail as a component of that discussion. We recognize that our transportation system can't be just about building roads; that we have to find other ways to move people, particularly in this subset, of moving people to enjoy the urban core in both of our respective cities.”

Kriseman said the service, which would operate between October and April, would move forward only if the buy-in and the negotiations with HMS are completed not later than May.

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