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Waterborne transportation a fact of life in other cities; why not Tampa Bay?

Published Jul. 30, 2018

Mark Hubbard, the owner of Hubbard's Marina on John's Pass, has watched two decades of uncertainty over the future of waterborne transportation play out in Tampa Bay.

Just when it seems that Tampa and St. Petersburg have figured out how to pay for the CrossBay Ferry between the cities, support for Tampa Bay Ferry — one of the water taxi routes Hubbard operates from Madeira Beach to Treasure Island — might be unraveling.

It's a paradox that leaves him confused.

"Any big city you go to that's surrounded by water has waterborne transportation around it," Hubbard said.

So, why not here?

Tampa Bay's approach to water transit has been limited and sporadic, though not without recent bright spots like the Clearwater Ferry and the Pirate Water Taxi along Tampa's River Walk.

Although Pinellas County commissioned a study 15 years ago, outlining how water taxis and ferries could successfully connect its beaches to downtown St. Petersburg or Gulfport, such a network has never materialized.

Municipal support is hot, then cold. The same debate keeps coming up:

Are water taxis and ferries public transit, benefiting tourists and easing parking woes? Or are they purely an entertainment venture that public money shouldn't support?

That's the dilemma Hubbard faces in Madeira Beach, where $25,000 in city funds to help operate the route is in jeopardy.

From his view, it's been impossible to get 11 beach municipalities, the county and state to work together or even be on the same page about the future of water transportation in Tampa Bay.

According to Bob Beckoff, a water taxi consultant who has helped organize and get funding for water taxis across Florida and the United States, that coordination between local and state government is still needed today.

"Without that leadership, it's like having chickens squabbling in the backyard," Beckoff said.

The 2003 Pinellas study emphasized local water taxis should be privately financed, but with public funding support in the form of federal grants and matching local funds.

Locally, county leaders are now making securing water transportation grants a priority. For the first time, a recent change in Florida statutes allows Pinellas County's tourism development council to use tax money collected from tourists for transportation.

Previous coverage: Madeira Beach rethinks commitment to ferry

But that funding is still a long way off for operators like Hubbard. That leaves him and his employee and daughter Corey Hubbard, going city to city sharing their vision: a route that stops at all the beach towns, the city of St. Pete, and even connects with the Clearwater Ferry.

The Hubbards' beach route started slowly in the fall of 2016, but their boat logs show the water taxi carried 719 people in March and close to 600 in February and April of this year.

"At Tampa Bay Ferry, we are so passionate and feel so strongly this is going to work," Mark Hubbard said. "You have to start something and once you're successful you can apply for federal grants."

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But grants of any sort require community buy-in. That's something Whit Blanton, the head of Forward Pinellas, says leadership still needs to cultivate.

"I'd say right now, it's like we have a series of pilot programs," said Blanton, whose county group includes the metropolitan planning organization.

He sees a future in waterborne transportation, but also acknowledges Tampa Bay's geographical challenges. What's unclear, he said, is whether passengers will take a boat ride to avoid traffic and parking issues if the boat ride takes longer than car travel.

"But I think we run a risk, by not having certain options for folks, of losing some of the market we could be getting from tourism," Blanton said.

In 2015, Madeira Beach asked for bids to run a ferry or water taxi route. The city selected the Hubbards and said it would give them $25,000 annually. The Hubbards put in nearly $400,000 of their own.

But as a commission with new members works to put together the city's $9 million operating budget, some have been vocal about not supporting the venture the previous administration championed. At a workshop last week, Commissioner Nancy Oakley said she'd never ride the taxi, nor would any of her neighbors.

Related coverage:Things are calmer now in Madeira Beach, and it's showing as the city plans its budget

"If they want to go to the Pass, they're going to jump in their own boat or get there in a car and drive there in five minutes," she said.

On Tuesday, Corey Hubbard will go before the commissioners one last time in an effort to keep the financial partnership.

Hubbard's water taxi mainly carries tourists. That's a point Oakley has criticized, saying it shows the water taxi doesn't help residents.

Todd Lindheim, a captain of one of the water taxis, said he uses his route to sell Madeira Beach and point people to local restaurants. He's taken out real estate agents and prospective buyers to show off available properties. He said a stop at a nearby McDonald's allows free parking and all-day use of the water taxi for $10, compared to premium and often expensive parking on John's Pass and along Madeira Beach.

"Subsidizing a glorified boat ride doesn't make a lot of sense," said Lindheim. "But this is more than a boat ride. This an opportunity for Madeira Beach to stay a step ahead of everyone."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.