Ferry connecting Tampa-St. Pete adds new option for pleasure rides, potentially commuters

No one broke a bottle of champagne over the bow for good luck as the Provincetown IV ferry pulled away from its mooring in the Vinoy Basin near the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

But people on land waved as the new Cross-Bay Ferry service slowly slipped past the landmark pink Vinoy Renaissance Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg and out into open water on its maiden voyage to Tampa.

It was just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. Seas were calm and skies were clear for the expected 50-minute trip across the Bay from downtown St. Pete’s waterfront to downtown Tampa's waterfront near the Tampa Convention Center.  

“This is a perfect day and everyone is really enjoying the experience,” says Gary Cornwell of St. Petersburg’s city administration. “It’s a great way to appreciate both cities from the water, which many people don’t get to do.”

Tuesday, Nov. 1, marked the launch of water transport services to connect the two sides of Tampa Bay. One of the local TV stations called the new ferry launch a “nautical novelty,” which it was, but it also represents so much more.  

A milestone moment

A police boat and tug boat floated nearby the ferry, spraying water overhead in a high arc. It was most likely a test for safety, but it only added to the surreal moment. Two helicopters hovered overhead observing history in the making.

Dave Scott, owner of the Bad Monkey in Ybor City and president of the Tampa Bay Citizens for High Speed Ferries, is enthusiastic about the ferry and its potential for helping the region break its car habit.  

A retired major general in the U.S. Air Force, Scott says he used to “boat-pool” out of Apollo Beach when he worked at MacDill Air Force Base. He thinks many South Hillsborough County residents would welcome the ferry as an alternative mode of transportation.

“To leave the car at home and not mess with parking or worry about having a few drinks when you’re out for an evening at the Straz, at a game or at Gasparilla would be a big advantage,” says Scott. 

Ditching your car is exactly what local officials on both sides of Tampa Bay are hoping will happen. With traffic congestion on major highways and bridges getting worse every year, the goal is for a Cross-Bay Ferry to provide a fun experience that would lessen the stress of driving between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.  

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman called the ferry a “beautiful alternative for anyone who has been stuck in traffic on the Howard Frankland or Courtney Campbell Bridge.  It’s something that should have been considered years ago.” 

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long agrees: “The ferry presents an extraordinary opportunity to use our waterways to move transportation along and it should be a no-brainer for the region.”

Entertainment, commute or both?

Considering taking the ferry for a day or evening on the town in St. Petersburg or Tampa is easy. Think music concerts or Lightning games at Amalie Arena in Tampa, or the Grand Prix or museums in St. Petersburg, etc.

But opting to commute by ferry to the job might be a little outside the box for Tampa Bay residents, at least at first.  

Perhaps with sufficient promotion, a few practice runs and a little fine-tuning of the ferry schedule, it will become popular. Certainly other communities around the country and the world do it.

Julie Busch Branaman, Managing Photographer for 83 Degrees Media, commuted by ferry when she lived in Washington State on Bainbridge Island. That service is a very busy one. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, more than 75,000 Puget Sound residents commute to work or school every weekday morning by ferry.

For Branaman, it was both convenient and fun.

“I commuted to my job at a newspaper in Everett,” says Branaman. “The trip took about 45 minutes so you could sit at the table and catch up on business before you got to the office. Or you could get ready for work. In the bathrooms, there were always plenty of women doing their hair and make-up. Blow dryers and curling irons were everywhere.”  

Anything to save time and make the morning routine more efficient.

The only time the ferry commute was a hassle, says Branaman, was when she missed the boat. And that happened only once. “I had a three-hour drive through Tacoma back to the island,” she says.

Besides Washington State, New York City, Boston and San Francisco all provide commuter ferry service.

“Leave traffic gridlock in your wake” is the promotional slogan for Massachusetts-based Boston Harbor Cruises, which ferries commuters into work around Boston seven days a week. The Staten Island Ferry warns tourists that during rush hour, the ferry “is packed with commuters and not a good time for a leisurely ride.”

Tampa resident Shirley Ann Vergara, whose son Jason Ruhe owns St. Petersburg restaurant Brick & Mortar, was among the guests on the ferry’s maiden voyage. She says she can’t wait to take her three grandchildren.  

“I took the Staten Island ferry in New York in November and it was freezing, but this trip is absolutely amazing,” says Vergara. “In a heartbeat, I would take the ferry for a day trip to St. Pete.”

City connection, regional thinking

Chris Steinocher, President and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, says the ferry service was years in the making and a “game changer for both cities.”

“The ferry represents a moment of confidence for the region. If we get this right, imagine what else might get done,” says Steinocher.

Steinocher and other local officials see the ferry as an opportunity to create a stronger bridge between Tampa and St. Petersburg and to move the area to think less locally and more regionally.

“It’s tremendously exciting that people are finally seeing the vision. We live in such a gorgeous place and the ferry project is meant to accelerate everything,” says Ed Turanchik, an attorney representing the Ferry owners and former Hillsborough County commissioner who has been one of the ferry project’s biggest champions. 

The ferry is currently in a six-month trial period to test its appeal to the public. After that, the long-term success will be dependent on finding a sustainable funding source, say officials. The initial cost of the $1.4 million project to launch the service was split between the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.  

What you need to know

For the next few weeks, the ferry schedule will be geared toward entertainment, with service provided on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only. A full, seven-day-a-week schedule is expected to begin in early December.

The cost is $10 one-way for adults, or $20 for a round trip.  Cost for a children’s ticket (ages 3 to 11) is $8.  

However, during Thanksgiving week, Monday, Nov. 21 through Wednesday, Nov. 23, the public will be able to ride for free.  In addition, Frontier Communications is picking up the costs to provide free public ferry rides the third Sunday of every month.

The ferry is 98-feet long, 33-feet wide and can accommodate a maximum of 149 passengers. Bikes are permitted at an additional cost per person of $1 each way. Racks are available for up to 36 bicycles.  

There is free Wi-Fi, two enclosed areas with chairs and tables, a small snack bar and two bathrooms. There are also plenty of outside areas on the deck to enjoy the view and the sea breeze.  

Remember, as anyone who enjoys boating knows, it does get windy when you’re exposed to the elements. Raymond, the Tampa Bay Rays mascot, jokingly tried to smooth down a woman’s hair, blown into a wind-whipped frenzy by the breeze. But he didn’t have much success. The average cruising speed is 29 knots, or about 33 mph.  

To check the schedule and plan your trip, follow this link.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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