Successful Tampa Bay ferry trial has officials optimistic

The six-month fast ferry experiment on Tampa Bay is going so well officials are exploring funding options to do it again — either on a seasonal or full-time basis.

“There’s a demand for ferry service,” St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Kriseman told the Pinellas County commissioners in late March. Total passenger count for the first four months of the $1.4 million project — November 2016 through February — was 22,596. More than 6,300 were commuters. Two thirds said they might not have taken the trip if the ferry weren’t available; one third said they used the ferry instead of their car to make a previously planned trip. St. Petersburg and Pinellas along with Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa each put up $350,000 for the service that runs between the two cities’ downtowns through April.

“We’re pleasantly surprised,” said Greg Dronkert, president and COO of operator HMS Ferries, of Seattle. “It’s not that common where you’ll see strong demand when there are good land connections.”

There was a small but loyal commuter crowd and a lot of demand for recreational travel.

HMS time chartered the Provincetown IV, a 98’x33’x7’ aluminum catamaran delivered by Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in 2013 to Bay State Cruise Co., Boston. The 149-passenger ferry that runs between Boston and Provincetown has a top speed of 32.5 knots.

Initial ticket prices were $10 per one-way trip; the ferry recently cut that to $5 for weekdays. Operating expense per passenger mile was $1.35, according to data compiled by St. Petersburg. By comparison, Washington State Ferry’s is $2.12. Farebox recovery — revenue versus operating expenses — for the pilot is 35% compared to 20% for standard bus service. No government was guaranteed a return after expenses, but so far they’ve each received $13,650.50, city data show.

The mayor, who would like service year-round, wants to find funding for buying, leasing or building ferries. They’re talking with federal and state officials and hope the pilot will provide data to support their pitch. The biggest challenge, he said, is getting the boats.

“Available capacity on the market now is scarce,” Dronkert said. The Provincetown IV was the right size for the passenger count, but may be more boat than needed for area waters.

As for the future, he said they were in “demonstration mode. We do not try to push a project one way or another.” But would they be interested in operating the service if it were offered again? “Of course,” he said.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

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