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Clearwater Beach ferry service kicks off

Maddie's Crossing, a 42-person ferry boat, leaves the Clearwater Harbor Marina en route to the Clearwater Municipal Marina during one of it's maiden voyages on Monday. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Maddie's Crossing, a 42-person ferry boat, leaves the Clearwater Harbor Marina en route to the Clearwater Municipal Marina during one of it's maiden voyages on Monday. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Mar. 17, 2015

CLEARWATER

Here in the Tampa Bay area, we're surrounded by water. Good luck catching a ferry, though. They're nearly non-existent, though the idea has been floated for decades.

That changed Monday as a ferry began running between Clearwater Beach and the mainland.

The question is, will people ride it? Will they really leave their cars behind for the chance to skip heavy beach traffic? Ridership appeared low on opening day, but the founders of the privately owned and operated ferry have high hopes.

"I think it'll take, once we get the word out," said co-owner Dennis Rodriguez. "This is a nice way to get to the beach. It's better than that over there," he said, pointing across the water at the traffic-choked Memorial Causeway Bridge.

The new service, called Clearwater Ferry, is running once an hour from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., at least during an initial trial period. Its operating hours might be extended later.

A 42-passenger pontoon boat picks up riders in downtown Clearwater every hour on the hour. It docks at the Clearwater Harbor Marina, next to Coachman Park and the Harborview Center, where there's plenty of free parking.

After a 10-minute trip, passengers disembark at the eastern end of the Clearwater Beach Marina. That's a short walk from Pier 60 and the sand. The island also has a trolley that shuttles people around. The ferry leaves the beach marina every hour on the half-hour.

Right now, a round-trip on the ferry costs $6 for adults and $2 for children 4 to 12 years old. Kids 3 and under ride free. After March, the daily rate will rise to $8 for adults and $4 for children.

Employees of Clearwater Beach businesses pay $3 per day or can buy seasonal passes.

It's true that the Tampa Bay area has other boats that cater to tourists, whisking them away to isolated spots like Egmont Key or Caladesi Island. But this is a commuter ferry that's intended to help beach employees and visitors bypass the headaches of beach traffic and parking.

On a sunny spring day, Clearwater Beach traffic can back up for miles. And parking is at a premium on the island, where businesses perpetually complain that there aren't enough spots for employees and customers.

Commuter ferries have been proposed for the Tampa Bay area many times before, to no avail. Companies' attempts to launch a St. Petersburg-to-Tampa water taxi as a business venture foundered. A high-speed ferry linking MacDill Air Force Base to south Hillsborough, downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg is in limbo.

The last time Clearwater ran a ferry between its beach and the mainland, in 2000, it didn't work out. Not enough passengers rode it, so the city-sponsored ferry was discontinued.

It will be different this time, say the owners of the new service.

"We are a small company, funding this completely on our own, without any public resources," said Trisha Rodriguez, co-owner of Tropics Boat Tours. "There are so many reasons why it makes sense. Most companies on Clearwater Beach can't even offer parking for their employees."

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The service is in its infancy. They're still working on signs to indicate where the ferry picks up passengers. Other stops are in the works farther north and south on Clearwater Beach.

Two paying passengers boarded the 1 p.m. ferry Monday — Patrick and Love McLaughlin, who live in the Water's Edge condo tower in downtown Clearwater.

"I feel sorry for people who are on the bridge. That bridge is a parking lot from 12 o'clock until 8 at night, " Patrick McLaughlin said. "They're getting to the beach all frustrated, fighting for parking and paying an arm and a leg, when there's so much free parking over here."

The boat trip took 10 minutes, including a pause to watch a dolphin.

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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