Water taxis in downtown Tampa gain interest

Paul and Mary Monceret, at left, with granddaughter Abra Petro-Mackey and her father, Curse Mackey, enjoy a jet boat ride on the Hillsborough River. White Lightning operator John Barry sees a lot of interest in the thrill rides, sunset cruises and on-demand shuttles, but not a regular commuter and tourist shuttle service supported by a new study of the Urban Charrette, a group of young architects and urban planners — not yet, at least.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Paul and Mary Monceret, at left, with granddaughter Abra Petro-Mackey and her father, Curse Mackey, enjoy a jet boat ride on the Hillsborough River. White Lightning operator John Barry sees a lot of interest in the thrill rides, sunset cruises and on-demand shuttles, but not a regular commuter and tourist shuttle service supported by a new study of the Urban Charrette, a group of young architects and urban planners — not yet, at least.

TAMPA — The

boat pulls out of the dock at the Riverwalk Sheraton Hotel on the Hillsborough River, AC/DC blaring through the speakers.

Out on the open bay, the boat picks up speed. Capt. Shannon Williams sounds a horn and the vessel spins 360 degrees, causing water to spray and passengers to scream and slide in their seats.

"Yeah, baby!" hollers Paul Monceret, pumping his fists in the air.

The 40-minute "thrill ride" that ends with a quiet dolphin-watching stop is the dock's most popular waterside attraction.

But operator John Barry, who launched the business in October, also provides a taxi service.

boats pick people up at downtown docks or their homes on Davis Islands and Harbour Island and ferries them to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, waterfront restaurants and locations in between.

"It's been fantastic," Barry says of his business, which he says draws more than 100 people on weekend nights.

Could that mean the city is ready for full-fledged, regularly scheduled river shuttles?

Taryn Sabia, co-founder of the Urban Charrette, a group of young architects and urban planners, thinks so.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership paid Sabia's group to look further into river taxis. The study cost $8,000 and took four months. She reported results Tuesday, concluding what Barry already knew: There's interest in river taxis.

Initial costs include $300,000 to $600,000 for the vessels, but Sabia had no estimate on operating costs. She says government and grant money could help pay for the service.

"What everybody really wants to see is a scheduled service that can be used for commuting from some of the in-town areas to the downtown area that could also be used for tourists," Sabia said. "People are really looking for another mode of transit and want to be able to enjoy Tampa from its waterfront."

She'd like to see people able to commute from Seminole Heights to work at Tampa General Hospital via river.

Barry, though, thinks that reality is a long way off.

"Right now, no one would use them," he said. "Tampa doesn't have that type of a culture."

He does, though, see immediate interest in on-demand shuttles, sunset cruises, and, of course, the jet boat thrill rides.

Capt. Cliff Conatser agrees.

He started a water taxi service several months ago, called Tampa River Taxi, but reports that business is slow. He does odd jobs at the construction site of the Heights, a residential, retail and office neighborhood that will one day be built on the river just north of downtown.

He gets intermittent calls for private charters and lunch trips to Cafe DuFrain on Harbour Island or Rick's On the River north of downtown. Last week, he took a group of schoolchildren to the riverfront Tampa Bay History Center.

"The realm on the river is not ready for it. There's no docks half the places you want to go to," he said.

Darren Booth, development manager of the Heights, said he hopes that by the end of the year, after the project finishes building a portion of the Riverwalk with 20 boat slips, an office building and restaurant, interest in river activities will grow.

"The Heights has always been focused on activating the river, making it a vibrant public space," he said.

Barry says his fledgling business is already introducing visitors and residents to a view of Tampa from the river that may surprise them.

And that was the reaction Curse Mackey had as he climbed off the White Lightning jet boat this week with his 13-year-old daughter, Abra.

"It gave me a renewed appreciation of Tampa," he said. "It made me proud of my hometown."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

About the companies

Tampa River Taxi offers daytime shuttles and private charters on the Hillsborough River. Call (813) 369-8294 for information or to schedule a pickup. Cost is $125 an hour for private parties and $5 for round-trip shuttles.

White Lightning provides river taxi services from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays and 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. on weekends. The company also offers sunset cruises, eco-tours and jet boat adventure rides. Prices range from $8 for a one-way trip to $30 for unlimited daily services. The company offers Florida residents a "Splash Pass" for $10 that includes one month of unlimited service. Call (813) 777-9900 for information.

Water taxis in downtown Tampa gain interest 02/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 8:50am]

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