Exhale slowly and envision yourself standing on a jetty by the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. You’ve just parked your car in the ample lot, or maybe you took the bus or rode your bicycle, which you stored on the on-site bike rack. If you have time before your ferry is set to depart, you snack at the Aquarium or a nearby cafe and explore a few shops along Channelside Drive.
Gulls shriek as you step onto the ferry, holding your cell phone up to the scanner so that it can record your ticket. The sleek modern catamaran holds 200 passengers with both indoor and outdoor seating. After buying a glass of wine, you settle into a seat by the window to watch an enormous cruise ship pulled slowly up the Channel by a tugboat.
Since the ride to the dock in downtown St. Pete is leisurely — 42 minutes from departure to arrival — you decide not to look at your phone, but to enjoy the glorious sunset.
The low moan of a foghorn announces your arrival. You’re greeted at the dock by eager ferry-riders queueing as you exit, a swift exchange of people. After another brief toot of the foghorn, the boat backs out into Hillsborough Bay for its return run. You step out into the lively crowd strolling up Beach Drive, debating internally, “The French place to the left or the brewpub up the street?”
The ferry’s practical daily scenario, its bread-and-butter run, will be a trip between Schultz Park in South County and MacDill Air Force Base, transporting residents of Brandon, SouthShore and Apollo Beach. This will have the crisp efficiency of ferry-tram-office, allowing commuters a mellower trip and saving them both money and minutes, $2,500 a year and 30 minutes daily.
Fun comes in the off-peak times of funneling passengers, both visitors and residents, to both downtowns, Tampa and St. Pete, for sporting events, concerts, museums, shopping and dining. These trips could be direct, or they might triangulate from St. Pete to Schultz Park to Tampa.
The inclusion of Schultz Park adds a wonderful natural component to the mix of the two urban centers. This county-owned facility will offer bike trails, fishing and canoe and kayak rentals. The park will connect 66 acres of unspoiled land, creating a safe habitat for Florida wildlife.
“Urban eco-tourism” is the moniker created by Ed Turanchik, the ferry’s proponent, to describe the experience for residents and visitors. “I can imagine folks coming to the Tampa Bay area for a weekend of urban and outdoor adventures, all connected by this great ferry system, streetcar and trollies,” enthuses the environmentalist/lawyer and former county commissioner.
“People could do a museum and dinner in St. Pete, go biking in South County or kayaking in the Kitchen, and catch an event at the Forum without ever using a car over a two-day weekend.”
Doesn’t that sound like a great time? I’m ready to choose the seagulls for my traveling companions. How about you?
While the transportation planners crunch the numbers and the politicians count voter preferences, I’m imagining the experience of actually riding a ferry from Tampa to downtown St. Pete on a spring night.