Best way to get to Clearwater Beach? Ferry alleviates traffic, parking woes

When Camille Hebting first moved to Pinellas County from Europe three years ago, she was surprised by the lack of alternative transportation.

In her native France, she never needed a car. “I didn’t own one until I moved here,” she says. “I relied on trains and tramways and busses and never had an issue until I moved to Florida.”

Now the sales and marketing manager for Clearwater Ferry, she knows firsthand how critical it is to bring a variety of transportation options to the area. “We’re so behind when it comes to other cities and states,” she says. 

This is why Clearwater Ferry, which transports beachgoers and employees from Downtown Clearwater to Clearwater Beach Marina, North Beach and Island Estates has a key role in the area’s growth, as tourism soars along the beach, Hebting says. The area routinely breaks its own tourism records and ranks high among the best beaches in the world.
More visitors means more stress on the roadways -- it’s common for the Clearwater Memorial Causeway to have traffic backed up for miles during the peak tourism season. Parking along the beach is always an issue, too.

“For the last two decades, parking has always been at the forefront of Clearwater Beach problems. There’s only so many spaces if you’re not staying at a hotel,” says Lisa Chandler, owner of Pier 60 Concessions and Barefoot Beach House. “I believe the ferry has been a huge part of the solution. It eases the burden on the causeway and adds to the visitor experience.”

Hebting says turning to local waterways to alleviate traffic woes is “a natural choice.”

She adds, “It’s completely underutilized. There’s so much water in our county. You could go from [Clearwater] all the way to St. Pete Beach to Tampa, even, and you could be on a boat the whole time.”

How it all began

Launching a ferry service can be daunting, especially if business owners have never worked in the boating industry before, Hebting says. There have been attempts to bring ferries to the Clearwater Beach area in the past, but none has panned out.

But Trisha and Dennis Rodriguez have owned and operated the Tropics Boat Tours, a charter boat company that offers party cruises and scenic tours of Clearwater Beach, for the past eight years. It was a natural move for them to branch into ferry service.

“It was an easy transition for them,” Hebting says. “This is why the boat business didn’t scare the owners too much. Boats always bring a little bit of trouble, mechanical and all that. They definitely weren’t new to the boat business, which made it easier.”

Clearwater Ferry launched in March 2015 with one boat, a 42-passenger pontoon boat that shuttled passengers from downtown to the Clearwater Beach Marina.

Eventually, ridership showed there was a need for additional stops -- North Beach, just behind the Clearwater Beach Recreation Center, and eventually Island Estates.

A second, 21-passenger boat, was added to the mix, as well as an express route that runs back and forth between the two busiest hubs -- downtown and Clearwater Beach Marina.

“It’s basically all about ridership and what ridership needs,” Hebting says.

A third boat, which can accommodate 49 passengers, was added to the company’s arsenal in recent months.

Clearwater Ferry will also expand its services to Dunedin, which was the number one requested stop by passengers, she says. After working closely with the city, a pilot route to Dunedin will begin this fall.

“People staying at the beach want to be able to go places without going in a car,” Hebting says. Dunedin is a convenient day trip for those staying on the beach, but only if they have access to easy transportation. “Merchants [in Dunedin] are excited to see the potential of the tourism.”

The ferry will also draw Dunedin and north county residents, who, like Clearwater residents, were turned off by traffic, back to the beach. “They want to be able to come to the beach again,” she says.

There have been conversations between the ferry service and elected officials in Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair over the past year. Both would be “smart stops” down the road, Hebting says.

Numbers show the need

In the company’s first 25 months, it ferried more than 140,000 people to and from the beach. The average is 5,500 riders a month, with the numbers jumping significantly during peak months. In April, the ferry saw closer to 17,000 passengers and around 11,000 the month before, Hebting says.

Ridership -- and tourism in general -- is at its peak from March through August, she says. Both slow down from September through February.
There are also a number of events during the spring months that rely on the ferry to help alleviate traffic. “If there’s anything going on at the beach, we’re going to see higher numbers,” Hebting says. “This is why our April numbers were so high. There’s so much going on at the beach and it’s Easter time and it’s spring break.”

Chandler, who also runs the Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival in April, used the ferry to transport its 400 volunteers to the event. Many of those attending the event also used the ferry to avoid traffic and parking on the beach. “It’s just a 10-minute boat ride and such a welcome addition to the area,” she says. “It really eased the burden on the area during Sugar Sand and other [events.] It’s an easy way on and off the island.”

David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, says he’s impressed by the ferry’s ridership numbers, but not surprised. “I’m happy to see people understanding its value,” he adds. “The ferry is connecting visitors with Clearwater Beach in a very real way. It seems like such a no-brainer on so many levels.”

More than a ferry

While there is a utilitarian purpose to the ferry, it also serves to enhance the tourist experience in other ways. 

“While there is a need for an alternative mode of transportation, there’s definitely an entertainment value,” Chandler says. “It’s fun to take a boat to where you need to go.”

She references the Walt Disney World theme park in Orlando. From the ticketing area, visitors can access the parks by two modes of transportation -- boat or monorail. “So it becomes a part of the experience,” she says, “much like the ferry here.”

Hebting says Clearwater Ferry’s tagline when it launched was “Skip the traffic. Ride the ferry.”

“But a lot of people take the ferry even on days when there is no traffic,” she says. “It’s useful in alleviating traffic, but it enhances the beach experience, too.”

Disconnect with beach employees

The only ridership segment not growing as anticipated is beach employees, Hebting says.

The ferry was designed with both day trippers and employees in mind. “Day trippers have taken and embraced it as their asset to use, but it seems like not a lot of employees decided this was something for them, something that fit them,” she says.

Clearwater Ferry has made efforts to reach employees along the beach. In February, it met with managers and owners of beach businesses to discuss the possibility of dedicating one of its boats to employees during peak months.

For this to be financially feasible, the ferry service needed a minimum of 100 employees to commit to a seasonal pass. Only 20 signed up.

“There are 10,000 employees on Clearwater Beach. So to tell you we only need 100 is not really crazy,” Hebting says. “Maybe it has to do with the industry and high turnover and it being seasonal. So maybe they are not wanting to commit.”

Employees do ride the ferry, she adds. But they’re more likely to buy one-way tickets rather than round trip or monthly passes. So for now, focus on drawing employees “to more of a commitment [to the ferry]” is on the backburner, she says.

What’s next for the Clearwater Ferry?

When ferry services launched two years ago, it was funded solely by the owners. Since then, the company has received some funding from the City of Clearwater and Pinellas County.

Now the city and Clearwater Ferry are taking its partnership a step further. As the city moves forward with Imagine Clearwater, a redesign and reactivation of the downtown waterfront and bluff, it will include infrastructure for the ferry. Two terminals will be built -- one downtown, where riders leave their cars, and another at Clearwater Beach Marina.

The custom-built facilities will include a ticket booth, information about the ferry service and area attractions, and a waiting area. “It’s going to be a lot better for our visibility,” Hebting says.

Imagine Clearwater plans are in the early stages, though, she says. So even if the ferry terminal is included in the first phase of construction, it’s still at least a year away from getting started, she adds.

She also says Clearwater Ferry hasn’t ruled out eventually connecting with other modes of transportation in the area, including Clearwater Jolley Trolley, county busses and Tampa Bay Ferry & Water Taxi, which runs from Madeira Beach to St. Petersburg. If the Cross-Bay Ferry, a pilot program connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg resumes, there’s potential to take a ferry from Clearwater Beach all the way to Tampa if the three companies can find a way to work together, she adds. 

“It’s about lining up schedules and making sure the quality of service is the same. It’s really about making sure consistency is there,” Hebting says. “But all those connections, I think, are going to be critical to bringing alternative transportation to the area.”

Read more articles by Tiffany Razzano.

Tiffany Razano is a Pinellas County-based writer and editor covering the City of Clearwater and other news and features in the Tampa Bay region for 83 Degrees.
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