Water taxi getting a fresh look in Manatee County area, but obstacles are formidable

jajones1@bradenton.comFebruary 28, 2014 

More water taxis like this one operated by Anna Maria Island Shuttle Service could be making their way through local waterways. BRADENTON HERALD FILE PHOTO

BRADENTON -- Water taxi service, an idea batted around for years, is getting a fresh look.

Capt. Mark Hubbard, who operated the Tampa Bay Ferry 14 years shuttling passengers back and forth between Fort DeSoto in Pinellas County to Egmont Key, would like to extend the service to Anna Maria Island and Bradenton.

"We are very interested in it," Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said. "Ferries can be part of your transportation system, so federal dollars could be available. Rep. Vern Buchanan's office has been doing some work for us."

Helping to spark new interest in the idea is Bradenton's Riverwalk, which would be a water taxi destination, Poston said.

Holmes Beach Mayor Carmel Monti has also expressed interest in adding water taxi service.

In 2005, Renaissance Planning Group completed a water taxi feasibility study for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The study's conceptual priority route for the water taxi would have linked Holmes Beach east to Palmetto, Bradenton and Fort Hamer, and south to Bradenton Beach, Cortez Beach and Marina Jack in Sarasota.

"We have such wonderful water amenities around the two-county area that it makes a lot of sense to use it as a transportation corridor," said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee MPO.

Yet the caveat, says David Hutchinson, MPO planning manager, is contained in the 2005 study. Adequate funding, links to land transportation, aggressive marketing and private-public partnerships are essential to water taxi viability.

All of those factors have convinced Capt. Tom Hanchett of Riverside Tours Inc. it's not feasible to launch a full-fledged water taxi service serving the two-county area or linking to Pinellas County.

"It's not going to work unless there is a special event. There isn't a way to sustain it," said Hanchett, who operates out of Palmetto.

A local water taxi service has a chance to thrive at events such as the Seafood Festival, set for April 5-7, where Hanchett's Riverside Tours will run an all-day shuttle between Regatta Pointe Marina and Riviera Dunes in Palmetto and Bradenton's Riverwalk. For a $10 ticket, riders can hop the shuttle all day, Hanchett said.

Hubbard, who operates the taxi service between Fort DeSoto and Egmont Key, agrees a number of factors are important to making a taxi service viable, including promotion by tourist development boards, and free or cheap use of public docking facilities.

Otherwise, the price of a water taxi fare would be too high. Riders will pay $10 for a local ride, or maybe $20 to cross the bay, but they won't pay $40, Hubbard said.

Sometimes, those local docking areas aren't available either.

SueLynn, mayor of Anna Maria, said water taxis are a great idea, but not feasible in her community.

The lease holder for the Anna Maria pier has not supported docking water taxis there because of wear and tear on the pier, and added demands on already limited restrooms and parking, SueLynn said.

Tracey Dell attempted to operate the Island Pearl as a water taxi serving Anna Maria Island, Bradenton, Sarasota and Longboat Key, but eventually threw in the towel, and today focuses on catamaran excursions.

He said he was frustrated by lack of access to some facilities on Anna Maria Island, and a lack of paying business despite glowing reviews.

"When it was free, we got good business, and when we had a $5 fee, we got no business," Dell said.

Local restaurateur Ed Chiles is a water taxi booster.

Chiles envisions "linking arms across the bay," allowing Pinellas residents to take a water path to the Anna Maria trolley, local restaurants, and maybe staying overnight. Manatee residents could also use the taxi to get to Fort DeSoto and elsewhere, possibly including Tampa Bay area airports.

Chiles said he remains a little frustrated, but it's worth getting behind any efforts to revive the water taxi idea.

Jim Van Pelt, MPO public transportation planner, said federal funds appropriated for water taxi services in Florida are minuscule.

Taxis in Putnam County, Mayport, Clearwater, Hontoon Island and Port Matanzas share a total of only $101,000 in federal funds.

The possibility of finding additional federal funds for local taxi service remains uncertain.

Asked about federal funds for a local water taxi service, Max Goodman, deputy chief of staff for Buchanan, said, "We will review the proposal when we receive it."

Even so, other communities have successfully developed water ferries.

The round-trip fare for the shuttle operating between Fort Myers and Key West starts at $91.95.

Among those who have taken a trip on the Key West shuttle is Van Pelt.

"It was a lot of fun -- and it flies," Van Pelt said.

James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.

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