Thursday, March 16, 2017

Internal Borders
Thoughts on the Cross-Bay Ferry, Tampa Bay Buses and the Movement of People

Originally published at Ybor City Stogie
Saturday, February 18th, 2017. 5:30pm.

Two days before our voyage, in an admirably fierce display of people's journalism, the Tampa Bay Times laid waste to bus networks in both Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.  Caitlin Johnston and Eli Zhang detail their sad track records when it comes to investing in mass transit and in making any real efforts to improve it over the course of decades.  The most astonishing finding might be that Tampa Bay is the only top-20 metro region by population in the country to spend less than $213 million per year on its systems, trailing pathetically down at $141 million.  This fact puts the drawn-out debate over whether PSTA should invest in two measly electric buses into perspective: the real question is why there is not more money in the pot in the first place.  Johnston and Zhang also tell the stories of the people affected by this state of affairs, who often spend dozens more hours a week traveling than their motorist peers, and the vicious circle straitjacket of poverty that it keeps many stuck in.  It's made clear in the article that both counties are terrible separately, but the argument that the watery bay itself is to blame continues to persist.  Can this Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project traversing the area offer any kind of public transport redemption?

We pick up our humble paper tickets and proceed past a continuation of friendly crew members.  You can see some lovely footage of the boat here from a guy with a suspiciously similar identity to me.  It's pleasant without being garish, as you would hope with tickets ranging from $10 to free.  You can explore relatively openly, and experience the elements if you choose.  There's some food, but more interestingly there are Florida craft beers from the likes of 3 Daughters and Funky Buddha.  The local angle continues with coupons in the on-board newspaper for Florida Cane Distillery, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Daddy Kool Records and Mother Kombucha, among others.  If you ask nicely, there is even the opportunity for free pain relievers.  The bus network suddenly seems very distant.

While the staff here are likable, the land use is ugly.  Notable views include Big Bend coal power station, outmatched in terms of visible pollution only by a cruise liner farting into the evening air.  Which brings up the question of the sustainability of such journeys compared to the alternatives.  Air and carbon emissions from flying and luxury cruise liners have been woefully neglected by the majority of American environmental groups. The available fuel economy information on smaller passenger ferries such as the Cross-Bay Ferry catamaran is even harder to find, so maybe we shouldn't be too harsh on the operators for their silence on the issue thus far.  Considering that they don't need to temporarily house, feed and entertain hundreds or thousands of people over long periods, whilst burning fuel that would never be allowed on dry land, we might hope that the emissions from such vessels are considerably less than those of the ship we saw passing in the opposite direction.  How Cross-Bay compares to equivalent car and bus journeys however, needs to be addressed sooner or later if Florida is to make any attempt to save itself from sea-level rise that will render whatever infrastructure we choose moot.

Supporting nearby economies is also important for the environment, and an ideal that often makes for strange bedfellows.  The past year has seen a narrow form of "buy local" nationalism take hold in many countries.  You realise the complications and somewhat arbitrary nature of it all when you visit the bathroom of Provincetown IV -- purportedly manufactured in Massachusetts -- and see sign wordage that includes "royal flush," "rubbish" and "quali-T".   In other words, trying to pick apart and identify local, national and global supply chains, keeping just the bits you want, isn't particularly simple.  The aforementioned Big Bend, the only coal power station in the Bay, gets its fuel from Kentucky, and doesn't even serve Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.  Coal from Appalachia undermines the development of clean Florida resources and economics as well as anything brought in from overseas.  Every effort has been made to allow for the free movement of business products.  The same cannot be said for the free movement of human beings.
These issues only continue to play on my mind as we arrive at the historic Tampa Theatre, a brief walk away from the dock (Tampa Bay is one of the top ten most deadly places in the country to be a pedestrian, by the way).  There's a marathon showing of live action, Oscar-nominated shorts, and the five films have a strong thread of themes running through them about transport, movement and migration. Silent Nights is a Christmas love story complicated by the fact that one of the participants migrated to Denmark from Ghana, without papers.  In Timecode, we see that a car park can be just as underutilized and isolating as the car itself -- but the bored Spanish guards make hilarious use of the wasted space.  Enemies Within demonstrates how categorizations of people can shift around them.  A French-Algerian Muslim man who has lived in France most of his life goes through the formality of interviewing for citizenship, only for tense accusations and the threat of deportation to surface.  In Switzerland's The Railroad Lady, a car-hating woman waves a flag at the high-speed train that passes her home twice a day.  Despite the amazing speed of the tech which allows certain people to cross multiple borders a day, the driver and the woman manage to build an unusual and sweet connection.  Sing is the cute tale of a group of kids trying to get from Hungary to Sweden for a competition, and standing up to abusive teacher authority on the way.  Sing went on to win the Oscar for live-action short.  I don't know why exactly all of the nominations came from continental Europe, but it's appropriate when that is a place where both Britons and Americans might soon find travel somewhat more restricted.

Movement and who gets to partake in it have become hot topics lately.  Conversations about migration and transport are not that different, in that they involve allowing people different degrees of freedom to get around based on their backgrounds.  Just as national borders and countries of origin are used to determine who gets access to what rights and what resources, access to varying types of transport serve the same ends.  For most people regularly taking public transport in Tampa Bay, it's because they are poorer than average (PSTA's own research shows that about half of their riders earn less than $15K a year).  If you are not perceived to contribute enough to the economy, your options for transport are reduced to slow, often inconvenient and minimally maintained ones.  If you care about the detrimental impacts of private cars, are physically unable to drive or just dislike using them, your choices are similarly grim.  Your right to freedom of movement then is theoretical, and thus largely useless.  It is severely restrained because of who you are, much like the migrants who must face barriers and harassment at every turn because of the particular places they were born on their own planet.  If you are of one of the correct nationalities and have access to a car, you are permitted to enjoy a greater degree of freedom of movement.  Until you get stuck in a traffic jam, at least.  Being white also helps.

For this area and its working poor, the Cross-Bay Ferry could go some way to rectifying the situation, even as a small part of a decent transport network.  The service is reporting month-on-month ridership records as the end of the pilot phase approaches in April.  Perhaps even more encouragingly, operators state that over 90% of customers are locals, not the wealthy tourists that local government is so often criticized for focusing on.  Given that the website at the time of our ticket purchase that afternoon said there were 108 left for the journey (out of 149), it remains to be seen whether this is enough interest to get the project off the dock for real.  What is known is that the ferry is comfortable and fast; faster than the multi-hour odyssey that is a bus over the bay, and maybe, by some metrics, faster than driving.  Going to Tampa Theatre would have been unthinkable and beyond suggestion with the bus as the only option.  In other words, for those marooned on the Pinellas peninsula or spaceship Hillsborough, it's a game changer.  What would be really great would be if the people holding the purse strings - whatever level of government they are at - valued our freedom of movement as equally as that of other residents, and funded transport choices sufficiently.  Considering that the "America First" draft budget eliminates all future federal spending on transit expansions entirely (forget about PSTA's Central Avenue rapid bus project), this might be a challenge.  In the meantime, the best we can do is what we did during the Greenlight Pinellas referendum, and hope for at least some scraps of a scheme.  Just don't let the foreigners know how good we've got it.

NB: As of December 2017, local dithering over funding (Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn) and politics (the St. Pete Mayoral election) mean that the ferry is not likely to return until at least the 2018-2019 fall season.  Thanks once again to Caitlin Johnston.