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    Marina operator proposes speedy shuttle ferry

    A family wants grant money to help buy a craft that would transport passengers from Madeira Beach to Key West


    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000

    MADEIRA BEACH -- Call it a bullet ferry.

    Voters on Tuesday weighed in on whether Florida should construct a bullet train to connect points around Florida, but in Madeira Beach city officials are looking at a different method for traveling south.

    A Madeira Beach marina operator wants to shuttle passengers once a day to Key West on a $4.4-million ferry that can move as quickly as a car on the interstate.

    The Hubbard family, owners of Hubbard's Marina and the Friendly Fisherman, hope to bring the speedy shuttle ferry to their John's Pass dock, home to deep-sea fishing charters and a gambling ship.

    The Hubbards will apply today for grant assistance from the state Department of Transportation through a program that funds alternative transportation programs.

    Mark Hubbard of Hubbard Express, the new company handling what the family calls a SeaTran, says this new venture will instigate a "Florida marine highway system."

    For a $99 round-trip fare, 150 passengers would board a triple-deck, 150-foot boat at John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach, travel 55 nautical miles an hour (about 65 mph) southward on the Gulf of Mexico, then disembark three hours later in Key West.

    The hull of the ship, most easily described as a cross between a catamaran and a Hovercraft, runs so quickly because it rides on a cushion of air. The technology was designed in Bartow by Howard Harley, who said he spent years developing and experimenting with different variations of what became his "surface effect ship."

    Harley built 50 different models before perfecting the technology and received a patent in 1996. The Hubbards' name for the ship they hope to buy, "SeaTran," stands for "surface effect-aided transportation."

    The technology is so new that only three of the boats exist, and all are demonstrators for Harley's company. The first commercial boat featuring Harley's air cushion will hit the water in early 2001, when a Venice company begins making daily trips to Key West.

    Hubbard Express would likely be the second company to operate a high-speed ferry on Florida's West Coast -- and the second company in the world -- using the new technology. A ferry now runs from Marco Island to Key West, Hubbard said, though that ferry is not nearly as fast as the Hubbards' would be.

    "Air is 760 times less dense than water, so there's 760 times less drag," Harley said, explaining how his ferry works. "It's extremely efficient."

    The Hubbards hope to receive state or federal grants to help finance the multimillion-dollar boat or other amenities to make the project successful. Among other improvements, the Hubbards are interested in constructing a parking garage, valued at perhaps $1.2-million.

    They also would put $250,000 toward helping Madeira Beach finalize improvements in John's Pass Village.

    City officials are excited about the project and hope it brings more attention to John's Pass Village, which is under redevelopment as the city plants trees and dresses up the area. The Key West shuttle would give tourists a reason to visit Madeira Beach as a destination.

    "It fits in well with what we're trying to do at John's Pass," Madeira Beach Mayor Tom DeCesare said.

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