County considering feasibility of water-taxi service
By Charlotte Libov
A ferry plying Biscayne Bay to speed commuters to downtown Miami jobs may be revving up as the county queries private operators on the line's feasibility.
José Luis Mesa, staff director for the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the county has written to ferry operators elsewhere and placed a notice in a trade magazine.
At this point, he said, the county isn't seeking formal proposals but wants information "to assist in identifying the capability of firms to meet eligibility requirements and interest" in providing ferry service.
"This is the first time we are doing this, so we want to see what the industry has to offer. And then, beyond that, when we have the letters of interest, we can sit down and see what we have to offer," he said. Letters of interest are due April 7.
The county is envisioning a private-public partnership to run the boats. In the letter, firms are asked to state their qualifications as well as:
nThe number of vessels they think they would need and their cost.
nHow the company would handle such sensitive environmental issues as the protection of wildlife and seagrass beds.
nHow the service might be financed.
Using the county's waterways for transportation is very appealing but not as simple as it might seem, Mr. Mesa cautioned.
"It's like a rail project - everybody likes them, but they take forever to do. There are a lot of requirements," he said. While the area's environment provides lots of sunshine to make such a system useful, he said, on the other hand it contains fragile ecology.
In February the county asked the planning organization to seek letters of interest to help determine the feasibility of creating a ferry line.
The letter notes that Biscayne Bay and the county's other waterways "are extensively used for recreational purposes and commonly utilized for the transportation of cargo."
"In recent years, as multimodalism has become more critical to improving travel and increasing the capacity and reach of urban area transportation systems, transportation planners have begun to research locally novel modes as potential supplements to the conventional car, truck, and transit landside surface modes to transport people and goods," the letter says.
It notes that "waterborne transportation services" are now being recognized as a potential alternative to meet the growing travel demand "by utilizing some of the extensive systems of waterways available in Miami-Dade County."
Project Manager Frank Baron said the exact route isn't determined but likely runs would be from Aventura to Miami's Central Business District on the North Bay and from Black Point to the Central Business District on the South Bay. Stops are uncertain, he added, but non-stop or one-stop options are being strongly urged.
A similar service in Fort Lauderdale utilizes larger boats than those desired for Miami, Mr. Baron said. Ideal for this area, he said, would be low-wash catamarans, which do not create a large wake.
"Basically, these are boats that can take on shallow water and, more importantly, do not throw out a big wake, so they wouldn't be disruptive to the environment or to houses along the way," he said.
Initially, a Miami Beach-to-downtown Miami route was proposed as a demonstration model, he said, but some county commissioners objected that they want a system primarily for commuters, not tourists.
Like all mass transit systems, he said, a waterborne system would not pay for itself but would need public subsidies.
"The best you can do, which I think was done a little while ago, was the trolley in San Diego. It recovered 98% of its operating costs," he said, noting that was just operating cost, not the cost of creating the system.
A 2004 study, "Development of a Service Plan for Waterborne Transportation Service in Miami-Dade County," now on the planning organization's web site, found about 1.7 million passengers might annually use ferries, about half drawn from current mass transit users, one-third from motorists and the rest presumably tourists.
"Whenever you put in new mode of transportation, the bottom line is whether the community wants to invest in it," Mr. Baron said. "Some say we have the weather and the bay, and this would make Miami a world-class city."
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