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  1. Business

Few passengers climbing aboard water taxi to the beach

In theory, the idea of a water taxi shuttling people from downtown Clearwater to the beach to help them avoid an inevitable battle for parking seemed like a foolproof business.

But five months after launching Clearwater Ferry, owner Patricia Rodriguez said tourists, beach employees and locals have not ditched their cars for water transport with the enthusiasm she had expected.

Only two beach businesses have purchased ferry passes for their staff even though all employers Rodriguez surveyed earlier this year indicated they would support the effort.

About 150 daily customers are needed to sustain the endeavor, but ridership fluctuates drastically from 900 during the Sugar Sand Festival to just six on her slowest day, Rodriguez said. At $8 round-trip and $3 for beach employees, she said ridership revenue alone is not enough, and a public-private partnership with the local government may be needed for the future.

"Everybody supports it in words, everybody supports the idea . . . but we are still creating a mindset of leaving your car and coming on the water," she said. "It's a mindset of people still being attached to their cars."

On July 29, Rodriguez wrote the city asking $248,000 in public funding, but withdrew the request after City Manager Bill Horne explained the city would have to initiate a competitive bid process to award public funds to a private business.

She said a partnership with the city would allow her to advertise on government platforms and secure capital to cover $75,000 yearly operating costs, $50,000 in advertising and $123,000 in vessel and equipment needs. However, she said she will wait to submit a formal request for proposal until she further evaluates costs to avoid being outbid by a potential competitor.

Ed Turanchik, an attorney representing the company trying to bring a high-speed ferry to Hillsborough County, said public-private partnerships are imperative to support most transit services.

Given the immense cost and unpredictable ridership, he said a private transit venture is unrealistic.

"It's hard to stand up a ferry operation when something is congested on weekends or one or two nights out of the year, because you don't have many trips to spread the capital and operating costs," Turanchik said. "And the public has a role in it because you're taking people off the roadways and letting everyone move. It's a real public function."

Rodriguez said she is confident the service could help support tourism and the needs of beach workers if only the ferry had the authority to advertise through the city and increase visibility. The 48-passenger pontoon boat currently leaves downtown for the Clearwater Harbor Marina every hour on the hour, running 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Sundays.

A second vessel will be in operation next month, and the goal is to create more routes to take patrons to Dunedin and other parts of the county, Rodriguez said.

"We want to be Pinellas County transportation," she said. "Every great place there is in Pinellas County, you can get there by water."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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