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    Water taxi service asks city for dock

    The owners say they can't buy boats until the St. Petersburg City Council approves a contract.

    By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2003

    ST. PETERSBURG -- They have the route, the schedule, the ticket prices and even a catchy new phrase to describe their water taxis.

    Now all they need is the boats.

    The founders of Gulf Coast Fast Ferry Service, scheduled to run between St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Beach and Tampa, will ask the City Council on Thursday for permission to dock at the North Yacht Basin.

    Under the terms of a one-year contract, the city would receive $450 a month for the dock space, plus 50 cents per passenger.

    Robert Birkenstock, one of the company's three owners, said council approval of the contract will allow them to order the four 72-foot catamarans needed to start the water taxi service.

    "There's a certain chain of events that has to happen in order for us to get started," Birkenstock said.

    Before wary citizens start drawing comparisons with Titan Cruise Lines, the company that promised to run gambling cruises out of the city's port but failed to produce a boat, waterfront services director Joe Zeoli said the city is protected.

    Gulf Coast Ferry has 90 days after the contract is approved to show that the boats are ordered. If not, they must pay rent on the dock anyway.

    The service is scheduled to start in November. It will make hourly runs 365 days a year.

    For $24.95, a passenger will be able ride all day to Dolphin Landing in St. Petersburg Beach or the Marriott Waterside Hotel in Tampa. Discounts will be offered for children, families, commuters and groups.

    Birkenstock said the taxis will be "transpotainment," equal parts theme park and ferry service. The entertainment will include an on-board history lesson of Tampa Bay presented via video.

    "We're trying to make it more of a fun ride and do a little education about the bay along the way," Birkenstock said.

    Birkenstock, 61, said the company plans to hire 60 employees to run the taxis. Eventually, they hope to add other stops to the route, including John's Pass, Anna Maria Island and Bradenton.

    According to information provided by the company, the catamarans will be designed by Teknicraft, a New Zealand company. They will be powered by diesel engines with mufflers and underwater exhausts, which are supposed to keep noise to a minimum.

    The boats will feature air conditioning, indoor and outdoor seating, and a snack bar.

    Birkenstock is a retired IBM executive who moved to St. Petersburg in 1993. His partners, William D. Haueisen and J. Douglas Sanders, also live in St. Petersburg. All three have boating experience, although none has run a water taxi service before.

    Birkenstock said the company will receive most of its financial backing from a boat engine manufacturing corporation. He declined to name the corporation Friday.

    The company's owners have been working for more than a year to launch the company. They approached council members this week with their plan.

    So far, the idea has been given a warm reception.

    "It's very exciting," council member Virginia Littrell said. "I think it's an exceptional opportunity for St. Petersburg, for Tampa and for bridging the bay."

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