Ferry’s purpose unclear in official docs, Kriseman “Ferry’s Godfather”

St. Petersburg mayor Rick Kriseman as seen by the Tampa Bay Times?

The 6-month Cross Bay Ferry pilot project ends on April 30. But what is the stated public purpose of the heavily taxpayer-subsidized Cross Bay Ferry (CBF) that justifies spending public funds on it? It turns out that the answer to this and other questions were never clear to government agencies from the onset.

The Guardian has previously reported on CBF ridership, as well as on the public policy considerations involving CBF. In the interlocal agreement (ILA) that authorized the spending of $1.4 million of tax dollars on the ferry project, we found muddled statement and unclear goals.

In legal parlance, “recitals” are findings of fact. One recital in the ILA asserts that passenger ferries “have significant potential to boost urban and environmental tourism [around Tampa Bay] by providing greater participation and attendance at major sporting events, museums, restaurants and special events in these areas.”

This claim as it pertains to “environmental tourists” (more commonly known as “ecotourists”) can be read to mean two things:

i/ Passenger ferries between major urban areas can boost ecotourism – this would mean that ecotourists have a preference for “ferries between major urban areas.” Not only is that counterintuitive, we found no data to support this claim.

ii/ Ecotourists have a preference for “major sporting events, museums, restaurants” etc. as part of their trip – this seems counterintuitive and we also found no data to support this claim.

Although this ILA recital mentions tourism, not one recital mentions commuters. Yet on the very next page after recitals, the project description does. It says:

The Pilot Ferry Service is a pilot project to
(i) determine if a ferry service can be sustained in the future for the Tampa Bay region and
(ii) measure demand for commuter and noncommuter service, pricing feasibility…[and more]

Despite this stated purpose, passengers were never asked to self-identify as commuters or a non-commuters. To draw any distinctions between the two groups, policymakers would then have to simplistically assume, for example, that Monday through Friday passengers are commuters and those on Saturdays and Sundays are non-commuters.

However, the Tampa Bay Times engages in no such simple simplification. The Times, having analyzed the Cross Bay Ferry’s ridership data over almost its full 6-month trial run, divided ridership into two groups: Monday through Thursday and Friday through Sunday. When they did, they found that 67% of the ferry rides took place Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and concluded that “far fewer chose to use the ferry as a commuter option” than for other purposes.

The Times article began with a few claims and a question:

The Cross-Bay Ferry was an experiment for a region struggling with traffic, wedded to cars and separated by a big body of water. If given the choice, would people ditch their cars and take a boat across the bay instead of sitting in traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge?

The question ignores that neither “taking cars off the bridge” nor reducing traffic congestion or anything similar were goals stated in the ILA. Setting that aside, the Times’ answer to their own question was “it depends on the day of the week.”

Given the low Monday-Thursday ridership documented by the Times, the only possible day of the week that the ferry could “take cars off the bridge” is Friday. Not Saturday or Sunday. The reason for this is because the Federal Highway Administration has unsurprisingly found that “on routes heavily used for commuting, weekday traffic is typically much higher than weekend traffic.” More specifically, there is no evidence that there is a need to “take cars off”  the Howard Frankland bridge on weekends.

When the Guardian conducts its own analysis of the passenger data, we don’t expect to find that the ferry “take cars off the bridge” in any meaningful quantity on Fridays, either. But we will keep an open mind – we always do.

Above: Florida DOT map of Gandy overpass project in Pinellas County

In addition, the Times’ view of the Howard Frankland bridge as the only bridge used by commutersignore the Gandy Bridge and the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Their view is also very short-sighted. The almost completed Gandy Overpass project and the planned Gandy Connector will both “take cars off the Howard Frankland bridge” because these projects make the Gandy Bridge a much more viable option for many cross-bay commuters.

The observation about the Gandy Overpass and the Gandy Connector lessening traffic on the Howard Frankland bridge was made by both Hillsborough County commissioner Sandy Murman and Pinellas No Tax For Tracks spokeswoman Barb Haselden. They are probably not alone in making this observation.

In their most recent ferry article, the Tampa Bay Times also seems to be backing away from its full-throated support of the ferry earlier in the same week. Perhaps they remember their past editorial support for the Gandy Connector and suddenly realized how it will alter cross-bay traffic patterns once it is built.

The Times also declared St. Pete mayor Rick Kriseman to be the “ferry’s godfather” in their most recent ferry article. It is not known if the Times meant to point an accusing finger at Kriseman with the “ferry’s godfather” label, or meant to lift him up, or neither. However, the recent charge that “Ferry Tales” are being told combined with the visual imagery of a mafioso mayor may not help a mayor facing re-election after multiple sewer fiascos.

In politics, “an eternity” is defined as “10 weeks.” It would therefore be unwise for anyone to assume that Kriseman will not be re-elected simply based on sewage issues and ferry decisions. Time will tell how the ferry plays out politically.

There were other notable recitals in the ILA, e.g. “passenger ferries can provide an elegant and iconic connection.” The very first recital in the ILA is that “passenger ferries represent one of the most cost-effective options for providing transportation capacity and service between communities and destinations located around Tampa Bay.” If that were true, wouldn’t a private business already have exploited this alleged “cost-effectiveness?”

A student writing for the Lakewood High School newspaper rode the ferry and simply conclude that “it’s a cool thing for a tourist to do but not something commuters would do every day.” The student’s conclusion will be analyzed in greater depth in our next article on the CBF, an article in which all sides will be heard.

As always, the Guardian reports and the readers decide. Please like our Facebook page to find out when we publish our articles.

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