Public officials envision more ferries to help ease Tampa Bay Area traffic woes

As more tourists and new residents flock to Tampa Bay, the congestion on area roadways grows worse -- a negative consequence of the region’s booming economy.

Weekend crowds heading for Clearwater Beach back up traffic on the Memorial Causeway. 

Rush-hour gridlock and crashes routinely bring the bridges across the Bay to a standstill.

In south Hillsborough County, the workday drive to Tampa and MacDill Air Force Base means stop-and-go traffic on U.S. 301 and U.S. 41.

Now, officials on both sides of the Bay have plans in motion to take advantage of the waterways around us and use ferry service as a transportation solution to escape that congestion and cut travel times.

“It is really an untapped resource,” says Chelsea Favero, the planning manager with transportation planning agency Forward Pinellas. “This area of Florida was developed around the automobile from the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and on. We built a lot of roads around here. We've focused a lot of energy on that. Now I think it’s time to shift, especially in Pinellas County, where we are not really building any more new roads.’’ 

What else can we do to help get people around to where they need to go?

“With so many people continuing to move to this area, congestion is only going to get worse,’’ Favero continues. “But you are not going to see a crash out on the water that backs up thousands of vehicles going over a bridge. It will be another option to get people around.’’

Here is a look at the short-term and long-term plans to expand ferry service in the region and connect waterborne transportation to the larger transportation and public transit network.

In Pinellas, a phased approach 

For years, the privately-operated Clearwater Ferry ran on a regular basis, carrying passengers between downtown, Clearwater Beach, and Dunedin. Then COVID hit in 2020 and the Clearwater Ferry scaled back, operating on a reservation-only basis.

The first piece of a plan that Forward Pinellas and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) have to incrementally develop a countywide ferry service over time is restoring the Clearwater Ferry service with the assistance of public funding and expanding it to a seven-day-a-week schedule with ferries every 30 to 45 minutes.

Besides restoring the Clearwater Ferry service, continuing to fund the Cross Bay Ferry between St. Petersburg and Tampa is another early-stage priority.

Setting the early stages of the plan in motion, the Forward Pinellas board, which is composed of 13 elected officials from the County Commission and municipalities in Pinellas, added ferry service to their long-range transportation plan in March. That decision came after a year of discussion and planning by a Forward Pinellas waterborne transportation committee and makes ferry service in the county eligible to vie for state and federal funding, provided there is some local match. 

Working with Forward Pinellas, the PSTA has a proposal to oversee a ferry service that would be operated by private contractors on a daily basis, similar to the popular Jolley Trolley system. 

“Ferry service makes sense in a number of different scenarios,” PSTA Chief Development Officer Cassandra Borchers says. “One of them is when you just can’t get through the congestion. Another is when following the roadways just takes more time than cutting across the water. We see some places where using water transportation creates a real alternative to the roadway.”

In the long-term, Forward Pinellas and PSTA’s phased-in concept for a countywide ferry envisions a system that continues along the Intracoastal from Clearwater with stops in Sand Key, Belleair Bluffs, Indian Rocks Beach, John’s Pass, Treasure Island, and St. Pete Beach, then heads to Gulfport, and wraps around the southern part of Pinellas’ mainland to Pinellas Point and finally downtown St. Pete. From there, passengers could use the Cross Bay Ferry to travel to Tampa and Hillsborough.

“We’re on board with it here in Clearwater,” says David Allbritton, Clearwater City Council member and PSTA and Forward Pinellas board member. “I think it is really going to take off. We are perfectly situated for it with all the waterways we have here. The whole thing is to get it to where it’s part of the public transportation realm, part of the mass transit system, instead of something primarily for tourists.”
 
In the case of Clearwater, Allbritton says a new ferry dock is included in the upcoming complete redevelopment of Clearwater Beach Marina. As for downtown, Allbritton expects an enhanced, expanded ferry service, and the Imagine Clearwater redevelopment of Coachman Park will fuel each other’s success and help generate the type of activity the city has long sought to see downtown and along the waterfront. 

Building on Cross Bay success

From late October through April, the Cross Bay Ferry is packed with passengers traveling between downtown St. Pete and downtown Tampa. From St. Pete, they head across the Bay to catch a Lightning hockey game, enjoy downtown or Sparkman Wharf, or take the streetcar to Ybor City. From Tampa, they travel to downtown St. Pete to enjoy dining at a local restaurant, visit the St. Pete Pier, or see a museum exhibit. 

The seasonal ferry service first launched in 2017. It’s a public-private partnership funded by Pinellas County, St. Petersburg, Hillsborough County, and Tampa and operated by HMS Ferries Inc.
 
“It is immensely popular,” says Pat Kemp, Hillsborough County Commissioner and current chair of the Hillsborough Transit Authority (HART) board. “People just love to ride it. It has exceeded all original projections and is now, in fact, exceeding its past record ridership.”

Kemp says this year, the ferry has already exceeded its previous high of approximately 52,000 that was set in 2019, before COVID. Now, the Hillsborough County Commission and HART want to build on that success.

HART recently won an almost $4.9 million federal grant which, along with a $1.2 million contribution from Hillsborough County, will go toward the purchase of the first ferry boat that a local agency will actually own for the Cross Bay. Until now, the service has operated on a seasonal basis with boats leased from HMS Ferries, Kemp says. She expects the new ferry to be built and in the water in 2023, possibly sooner. At that point, Kemp says the Cross Bay will be able to expand from a seasonal service to year-round. Kemp also expects the new boat will have significantly more capacity -- 349 passengers compared to the current 149, which will help  accommodate increasing demand.

“This is transformational for us to get this federal grant for our first permanent full-time ferry service,” she says. “This changes everything to have that ferry coming. Because without it, the service would be dependent on having a leased ferry. This guarantees it. It guarantees that we have our own ferry and we have service from Tampa to St Pete year-round.”

Kemp says the Hillsborough County Commission is also funding a project, design and engineering study on the full ferry service county officials first envisioned in 2013 — a four-boat ferry system that adds terminals for south Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base and weekday commuter service between south county, downtown, and MacDill. 

“It is huge,” Kemp says. “People dealing with an hour-and-15-minute commute by car are desperately looking at this as an option. And we are in the unique circumstance here in Tampa Bay where it can definitely be an option. That’s something they cannot look at in Atlanta or Denver or other landlocked areas. And we don’t have to build expensive roads to connect people.”

HART CEO Adelee Le Grand says the federal grant will help the agency work with county government over time to develop ferry service as a part of the larger transit system.

“It is a great opportunity,” she says. “It is always good to get out of leasing and be able to own.”

Decisions ahead

The future of ferry service in the region will, of course, depend significantly on the public investment in funding it. 

Kemp says some significant future funding decisions in Hillsborough will include the south county and MacDill terminals, including related roadway and parking infrastructure, and the purchase of additional ferry boats, an investment that may receive financial assistance from the federal or state level.

For the year ahead, PSTA says a combined $450,000 from Pinellas County, the cities of Clearwater and Dunedin, and potentially tourism development tax revenue is needed to restore and expand the Clearwater Ferry service. The PSTA would contribute $100,000 toward repair and maintenance of the ferry.

The PSTA projects St. Petersburg and Pinellas County would have to put a combined $380,000 toward the Cross Bay Ferry.

More long-term, the investments to develop a countywide ferry service for Pinellas grow more significant, with projections ranging from $2.4 million in annual operating costs and a $3.6 million capital investment toward the low end up to $4.7 million in annual operating costs and $6.7 million capital investment for a more high-frequency service.

The development of more robust service with several stops along the intracoastal would rely on those beach municipalities becoming funding partners.
 
Significant long-term capital investments would include stations and ferry boats. Down the road, the PSTA plan eyes the future purchase of more heavy-duty, hybrid electric ferry boats.

“I think there are a lot more questions about how we are going to move forward as a county with all forms of public transportation,” says Borchers, the chief development officer at PSTA. “PSTA is one of the most underfunded agencies for public transportation. I think that affects our ability to grow as a community. It affects our economy and it affects the people who live and work here. We hope that we will find ways to fund public transportation so we can make an impact on people’s lives.”

For more information on the plans for future ferry service please follow these links:

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.