MADEIRA BEACH — In six weeks, a struggling water taxi service based in Johns Pass Village will cease operations.
The Tampa Bay Ferry & Taxi service began operations two years ago as part of a city-initiated public-private partnership that included an annual $25,000 contribution from the city.
The City Commission recently decided to cut the funding from its 2018-19 budget.
Commissioners cited complaints from taxpayers who want the money to be spent on infrastructure and other citywide needs instead.
"It was a great boat ride ... but I have a hard time supporting this," said Mayor Maggi Black as she described her recent ride on the ferry that she said took more than an hour. "That’s not a taxi."
Commissioner John Douthirt, who reluctantly voted last year to renew the city’s financial support, said he since received "a lot" of telephone calls from residents unhappy that the city was "subsidizing a private business."
That support payment was initially approved by a previous commission in response to a 2002 study performed by Pinellas County that touted the future of water transportation.
Hubbard’s Sea Adventures then invested about $400,000 to buy a ferry boat and support equipment. Monthly operational costs average about $16,000, according to spokesperson Corey Hubbard.
Two years after the ferry service began, the water taxi service connecting John’s Pass with Jungle Prada in St. Petersburg and a restaurant landing in Treasure Island was just beginning to show a profit, Hubbard said.
When the city cancelled its partnership agreement, Hubbard said the water taxi not only lost financial support, but also lost docking access to city property, reciprocal access in Treasure Island and St. Petersburg, and the ability to seek federal or state financial support.
"Could we continue operating without city financial support? Yes. Should we continue? No," Hubbard said.
"We would be pushing a boulder up hill," she said when asked if the service would consider moving its operations to another city.
Recent efforts to form similar partnerships with Treasure Island, St. Pete Beach and Gulfport were unsuccessful.
"Each city has its own priorities and concerns,’’ Hubbard said. "It’s just not practical to consider moving operations and still be at the political whims of a city."
The solution, she said, is for Pinellas County to take the lead in persuading waterfront communities to join together in establishing a countywide water taxi service.
Forward Pinellas, the county’s metropolitan planning agency, has listed water transportation services as a priority.
Currently a water taxi service in Clearwater connects that city’s downtown with the beach and with Dunedin, and at certain times of year a ferry service connects St. Petersburg with Tampa.
Hubbard’s company also operates a ferry service to Egmont Key and Shell Key.
"This stings a little but we are not going anywhere," Hubbard said, citing her family’s nearly century-long marine history in the Tampa Bay area — including a ferry service to Tierra Verde before a bridge connected the string of islands to the mainland.
"We have a passion for this," Hubbard said.