CLEARWATER (FOX 13) - Ridership on the Clearwater Ferry took a sudden and dramatic turn for the better Wednesday.
"Our numbers are still coming in, but we estimate between 1,500 and 1,700 people yesterday that rode the ferry. So quite a jump in numbers," operator Patricia Rodriguez told FOX 13 News, adding the figure is roughly five times the recent daily average.
Again Thursday, "It's going great. As you can see, we have full boats," Rodriguez said, pointing to a 42-passenger vessel with 41 people onboard and others stopped at a gate, waiting for the next ferry.
The privately-operated Clearwater Ferry started regularly scheduled service between downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach in March 2015. Recently, the Clearwater City Council decided to offer ferry passengers free parking, promote the service with signage and pay for $1 per ticket discounts between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
An exceptionally busy Christmas and New Year holiday period exposed the critical parking shortage and increasingly difficult traffic congestion on one of the country's most popular beaches. During spring break, between 50,000 and 60,000 vehicles pass through the island's roundabout.
There are about 2,000 public parking spaces.
"It was very difficult and frustrating, sitting on the causeway for an hour yesterday," Pennsylvania visitor and first-time ferry passenger Marty Enck said Thursday.
Michigan visitor and first-time ferry passenger Blaine Workman picked up the common tale from there: "Then you have to find a parking spot and... you have to finance your house... you know, to pay for your parking."
Rodriguez said the Clearwater ferry is already thinking about moving up from its 42-passenger and 23-passenger vessels to ones that can carry 70 people at a time.
"We are ready for larger vessels as soon as the ridership shows itself, which it appears to be doing," she told FOX 13 News.
Rodriguez also said there are talks underway to expand ferry service to Indian Rocks Beach, Sand Key and Dunedin.