Ferry Tales

By Jim Bleyer

The first step on the road to success is defining success at the outset, not during the effort or at its completion.

By any professional transportation yardstick, the Tampa Bay ferry experiment is a failure.

The fact that politicians, the ethically-corrupt Tampa Bay Times, and Ed Turanchik, the Cross-Bay Ferry’s point man for the experimental project, declare it a success doesn’t makes it so.  But following the lead of the Times when it comes to transportation issues, the politicos believe if you repeat a lie often enough, it equates to truth.

Any good business plan requires that the client–in this case the four local governments that subsidized the 6-month sea test– specifically delineate the overall results that the project must achieve.  Ideally, the target achievements are described in terms that government, the ferry service, and, most importantly, the taxpayers can easily discern.

This was not the case with the ferry deal that cost taxpayers in the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg and the counties of Hillsborough and Pinellas $1.4 million.

The Tampa Bay taxpayer–and the federal and state governments–might understandably expect the same slipshod oversight if these councils and commissions gambled $4-5 billion, probably more, on a light rail system pushed by their corporate cronies.  With this track record, Moody’s could very well rate Tampa Bay light rail bonds in the same category as Belarus, El Salvador, and Mozambique.

There were no ridership targets. Ridership figures are unaudited, ostensibly determined by a ferry employee with a handheld tally counter at the beginning of each voyage.  No one knows if the ferry service massaged the numbers–which are dismal anyway.

Human Transit, the blog of a prominent, professional transportation consultant, lists five criteria for determining the success of a ferry service: high frequency, very high density, quality landside access, no competition from bridges and tunnels, and favorable pricing.

The Cross-Bay Ferry has none of these.

If you don’t believe the ferry should be held to professional transportation standards, you could only deem it a success as a highly subsidized amenity.  It certainly does not relieve congestion from any of the cross bay bridges.  Since many of the passengers are in pairs or groups, on its best day the ferry keeps 150 automobiles a day off the bridges at non-peak hours. Minuscule.

In light of such anemic ridership, a passenger survey probably would have been moot.  But each ferry passenger should have been given a survey to complete with such questions as: resident or visitor, purpose of trip, first timer or not, how much was spent in the visited port, and the like.

Armed with this information and target ridership numbers, the politicians–those thoughtful, discriminating stewards of tax dollars–could have made an intelligent decision regarding the future of the ferry service.  Instead, with one notable exception, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, the members of the four subsidizing boards are parroting each other and the Tampa Bay Times in declaring the ferry a resounding success.

If one takes the unaudited ridership figures provided thus far at face value, the subsidy per passenger ride ranges from $27 to $37.  The exact subsidy is determined by the price of the ticket which has ranged from zero to $10.

But no one has ever disclosed the subsidy at a public meeting and the liberally-spending management at the Times has decreed its readers will never learn that.  The brainwashing has filtered down to a large segment of the public, few of whom have boarded the ferry or intend to.

The Times, who has been advocating a $4-5 billion obsolete light rail system for more than seven years, made a big deal out of the fact the ferry service has returned $112,000 to the four governments in March.  That amounted to eight percent of the taxpayer-financed investment.

The Hillsborough County Commission, in a move reminiscent of the delusional lunatics on a fishing trip in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” three weeks ago earmarked $22 million for expanded ferry service.

The propaganda machine is in well-charted waters.

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