Success of Cross Bay Ferry focuses on expansionNew routes, extra services, more vessels under consideration

If you’re looking to get from downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg while enjoying the surf of the bay, the gulf breezes, and a lot less stress away from automobile traffic, The Cross Bay Ferry will carry you over.

A transportation collaboration between the governments of St. Petersburg and Tampa, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and the Florida Department of Transportation, The Cross Bay Ferry takes riders 50 minutes from the downtown Tampa waterfront across Tampa Bay about 25 miles southwest to St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park. The Tampa boarding spot initially was at the Tampa Convention Center, but at least temporarily has changed to Sparkman Wharf to accommodate the Super Bowl (now through Feb. 17).

The ferry resumed service on November 1, 2020, after being suspended since March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Ben Lee, principal and founder of Schifino Lee Tampa advertising agency -- whose firm has handled the ferry’s marketing and advertising since its inception -- says despite the nine-month period of uncertainty, the “future looks bright” for the boat’s growth.
 
The ferry is contracted to run seasonally from Nov. 1 to April 30 through Matt Miller, president of HMS Ferries Inc., Bainbridge Island, Washington, and the four government entities funding the initiative. With backing by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, the ferry was able to resume operations under COVID-19 protocols on Nov. 1.
 
“It seems to have already been running very well and they’ve made COVID standards a priority when they re-started Nov. 1,” says Lee.

Lee says ridership continues to be very strong and there is “recent activity” about restarting discussions regarding broader ferry service from south Hillsborough County around Riverview and MacDill Air Force Base to St. Pete.
 
The concept calls for building a new ferry terminal in the Ruskin-Riverview area where many MacDill personnel live as a commuter service.
 
“That service alone will be very successful -- south county to St. Pete and to downtown Tampa, so it will become a multi-level, multi-stop route with permanent service 12 months a year,” he says, adding discussion with Hillsborough County commissioners is ongoing.
 
When and if the increased size and scope of permanent Cross Bay Ferry service occurs, now in its fourth season, Lee says its multiple stops and up-to-date vessels will “help make Tampa a world-class city.”
 
“It will be on par with New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Hong Kong in regards to its water-transportation needs,” he says. “It’s all very exciting.”
 
As for the current season of ferry rides, they’ve included increased COVID-19 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) safety precautions, including operating at 50 percent capacity of its 149 passengers and mandatory wearing of masks.
 
Currently, masks must be worn inside the ferry cabin. Selected seats are also roped off to designate social distancing. Areas with frequent hand-touching such as door handles and railings are wiped and sanitized in between every trip.
 
Additionally, in an effort to avoid the spread of COVID-19, plexiglass has been installed between seating, and restrooms are equipped with motion sensors for things like water and lighting.
 
The Cross Bay Ferry fares for adults is $10 one way; seniors pay $8 one way, and kids are $5 one way. Children ages 4 and under can ride for free.
 
Tickets are available online or at the dockside ticket booths. In Tampa, that’s at Sparkman Wharf within Water Street Tampa. In St. Petersburg, it’s at the Vinoy Basin, 375 N.E. Bayshore Drive. Ride reservations are encouraged.
 
For information, call  (727) 273-6877 or visit the Cross Bay Ferry website
 

Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.  
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