Daniel Ruth: Time has come for ferry service

Published Nov. 5, 2015

Do you ever get the impression whenever the subject of ferry service in the Tampa Bay area arises, somebody gazed out a window and had one of those V8 moments?

"Hey, wait just a minute here. Has anyone noticed all this water all over the place? Suppose we figured out a way to move people here and there on a water taxi? Whatta concept!"

And so, perhaps by early February, passengers may be able to cruise between stops in Madeira Beach and Treasure Island. Of course, this voyage is not exactly Kon-Tikiesque in its grandeur, but in these parts, it is fairly historic. After all, it involves — egad! — progress. And if the voyages prove to be successful, service could be expanded to include St. Pete Beach, South Pasadena, Gulfport and St. Petersburg. Now, we're getting into some downright Magellan-like advances in exploring public transportation.

You would think moving people by boat around a peninsula like Pinellas County would be more self-evident than the color of an orange. And yet, the ferry service options have been debated for more than a decade before the Madeira Beach-to-Treasure Island passage gained some traction.

The SS Three Hour Tour would be a public-private partnership between the city of Madeira Beach and Hubbard's Marina. The service would initially operate Friday, Saturday and Sunday and also be available for special events.

To be sure, the Madeira Beach-to-Treasure Island expedition is but a tiny ripple in the fledgling ferry business. But it is a start, as larger plans for a ferry operation linking southern Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base, with long overdue plans to eventually expand ferry service across Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg.

Consider if you live in Seattle, or Portland, or New York, the use of ferries to traverse large bodies of water has been ingrained into the transportation ethos of those communities. But not here. It's almost as if there has been an inexplicable aversion to exploiting our waterways to transport people from point A to point B. Perhaps the region's big shots irrationally fear an attack on ferries from the Loch Frankland Monster.

So, even though the Hubbard Armada will service a small area, perhaps once the powers-that-be see the ferries haven't been turned into an intracoastal Mary Celeste, a broader water taxi footprint will quickly catch on.

It should. You can look at Tampa Bay as an enormous body of water. Or you can view it as a vast aquatic transportation grid linking Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties. The bay is probably the most vivid example of what multicounty economic regionalism represents. The water doesn't distance us. Or at least, it shouldn't. It ought to connect us.

Who would have guessed all ports of call would begin with little Madeira Beach, which had the civic and political foresight to begin to take advantage of its coastline?

"Madeira Beach is the leader," Capt. Mark Hubbard told Tampa Bay Times correspondent Sheila Mullane Estrada. "They have stepped up to waterborne transportation and should get all the credit."

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The credit is all very nice. But when does the bon voyage party start?