Hailing a taxi

click to enlarge TAXI DRIVER: Laurence "Captain Larry" Salkin operates Tampa Water Taxi on the Hillsborough. "Even in these hard times," he says, "people still need to be entertained." - Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
TAXI DRIVER: Laurence "Captain Larry" Salkin operates Tampa Water Taxi on the Hillsborough. "Even in these hard times," he says, "people still need to be entertained."

St. Petersburg resident Rand Moorhead, 53, has the look of an aging beach boy. Born in Michigan, he's lived all over the U.S. and the world, and by his own estimation has worked in perhaps five dozen jobs throughout his life (including stints organizing transportation conferences at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and teaching English in Japan). But since moving to the Bay area five years ago, his main passion has been to launch a water ferry service between St. Petersburg and Tampa.

Moorhead says he's attended St. Pete City Council and Pinellas County Commission meetings and spoken with top officials in the city, including Mayor Bill Foster, about the idea, but has mostly been given a pat on the head and told to mind his own business.

"It's frustrating," he says, sitting outside a Starbucks in North St. Pete on a recent uncharacteristically warm afternoon. "But it also inspires me, particularly since most 'real' people, non-government entities and the like, support it. A lot of 20somethings say, 'Oh yeah, I'd love to be able to take a boat over to Tampa and party.'" But all he gets from officials, he says, is indifference.

Moorhead didn't realize when he spoke with CL that Pinellas officials have been involved in discussions about water taxi service in the Bay area. But Sarah Ward, transportation planning administrator with the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), says it's not a priority.

"I would say with the current economic climate, with all of the other public needs... it might be something desirable, but I don't see it rising to the level of being a priority in the near term."

Ward participated in one of two meetings on ferry service held earlier this year with government officials and neighborhood representatives from both sides of the bay.

Those meetings were part of a feasibility study conducted by Hillsborough County's MPO that included review of potential trip costs and other factors. The study is expected to recommend service, however, only on the Hillsborough side of the bay — a route between MacDill Air Force Base and the Apollo Beach-Gibsonton areas.

Randy Kranjec is a senior planner with the Hillsborough County MPO. He says that the greatest demand by far for the service came from MacDill employees who live in the southern and eastern parts of the county.

Once the study is finished, Kranjec says it will be presented to committees and then the full MPO board.

Tampa mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik is a big advocate of water taxis, and he's a bit disappointed that only the commuter aspect of such a service is being considered, and not the tourist element. "I think we're missing the boats, if you don't mind the pun," he says, adding that, with a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa in the works, the Bay area may eventually host many more tourists. "We need to be thinking about making that connection now."

Transportation officials in the Bay area say that getting people to Pinellas and its beaches from a high-speed rail stop in Tampa is becoming a priority right now. "The focus is bus/and or rail connections to high-speed rail, and... to get folks to the beaches," says Pinellas' Sarah Ward.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority's Amy Ellis says that her agency supports water taxi/ferry service, but also says it's not a high priority right now. She says that TBARTA is cooperating with the Hillsborough MPO's current study, and "long-term it's something that we want to include in our plans."

But not everybody in local government is treading water on the issue. Joe Kubicki is the director of transportation and parking management for the city of St. Petersburg, which participated in the feasibility study, and offered up a location for dockage facilities in the north mole (or breakwater) area just north of the Pier approach. But he expressed disappointment when told that the study will recommend water taxi service in Hillsborough County only. "We would continue to support a privately funded effort to provide water taxi cab service, and we encourage it to go from Tampa to St. Petersburg."

In Tampa, citizens and tourists already can and do enjoy water taxi service. Laurence "Captain Larry" Salkin has operated the Tampa Water Taxi company for the past three years, working seven days a week driving up and down the Hillsborough River.

"Even in these hard times, people still need to be entertained," he says, and is quite flexible in terms of serving his clientele. Among the different rides he provides is an eco-tour from downtown Tampa to Sulphur Springs.

Darren Booth is the developer of a rival service that used to provide service in Tampa on Friday afternoons called Tampa River Taxi (and is still available for special outings). He agrees with Turanchik that local government officials should be focusing more on the tourist aspect of water taxis.

Officials say the duration of a St. Pete-Tampa boat trip makes it unattractive for commuting, but Booth says that for tourists, what would it matter? "I would equate it with one beer or two beers. Or glasses of wine. Then you go to dinner and come back. That's a pretty cool amenity to add to the Tampa Convention Center."

The Tampa Water Taxi service shows that Bay area residents and tourists will take such a taxi for leisure and not just to commute, so why wouldn't the idea fly across the bay?

That's what Rand Moorhead hopes will happen. He has formed a group in St. Pete called Ride The Tide, hoping to put more pressure on elected officials to consider such a service, specifically to St. Pete's Pier. He says he's booked a meeting next month with the president of the Columbia restaurant, Richard Gonzmart, to discuss such a service, and says other local merchants are also extremely interested.

"The folks at Channelside with whom we spoke are truly excited about this idea as well as the Pier people. What concerns us, though, is... the transportation planners... they just don't listen, or give any indication that they are listening... So we are not too optimistic, frankly, as the power elite here in St. Pete has voiced opposition to integrating a water taxi stop into the existing Pier."

And according to the experts, none will be happening anytime soon.

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