YOU PAID FOR IT: Is the new Cross-Bay Ferry a nautical novelty or a boating boondoggle?

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Sailors often joke that the definition of a boat is a hole in the water you throw money into. Now, four local governments around the Tampa Bay area hope to prove that wrong with a $1.5 million investment in the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project that You Paid For.

“What they’re getting is a new and innovate way to get around Tampa Bay,” said Ben Kirby, spokesman for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “It’s a way to see if this is a viable transportation opportunity.”

The 98-foot, 149-passenger ferry arrived from Massachusetts last Friday and is due to begin public service from St. Petersburg to Tampa on Nov. 4. There’s an invitation-only maiden cruise on Nov. 1.

The pilot project hopes to prove that leisure time nautical transportation across Tampa Bay and daily commuter service will be financially viable on a permanent basis. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for kids, while commuters under age 3 get a free ride. “We’re going to watch and make sure whose taking this where and when and make sure those times are working out just right,” Kirby said.

The Cross-Bay Ferry is the brainchild of Mayor Krisemen, who convinced the City Council to toss in $350,000 to get the project going, along with identical contributions from Tampa, Hillsborough County and Pinellas County governments. St. Pete also contributed another $100,000 in startup costs and to create a docking facility on the south side of the Vinoy Basin.

The ferry will operate seven days a week, except for holidays, and takes about 50 minutes to transit Tampa Bay from the Vinoy Basin in St. Pete to the Tampa Convention Center. Gulfport resident Frances Reilly visited the docking site Tuesday and was excited about taking a ride to Tampa.

“Yeah, I would love a day trip,” Reilly said. But she also has reservations about how local governments plan to evaluate this taxpayer investment. Right now, there’s no established measure of success or failure for this pilot project.

“I do have a real a problem with that because it’s so easy to spend money and not account for it and not be transparent and that’s part of the history of this city,” Reilly said. “We do need to have some benchmarks and we do need to have some accountability in place especially for that amount of money.”

Kirby insists the venture is the first time all four governments on both sides of Tampa Bay have collaborated on any transportation project linking the area’s two major cities. He says that alone has a value that’s hard to measure regardless of whether ferry ridership ultimately justifies continuing service after the six-month trial period. “I don’t think it’s a boondoogle,” Kirby said.

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