Frustrated county commissioners demand plan for water taxi
By Eric Kalis
Frustrated by a lack of progress in planning a high-speed commuter transit boat, Miami-Dade County commissioners demanded last week that county administrators draft a resolution on the $16 million to $18 million project next month.
Metropolitan Planning Organization staff director José Luis Mesa said during a Regional Transportation Committee meeting last week that the project is ready to move beyond the conceptual stages.
"The county needs to tell us that they want to continue this," Mr. Mesa said. "I recommend drafting a resolution to start the process."
After hearing the report, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez directed County Manager George Burgess to write a resolution accompanied by a report with estimated travel times on a proposed route between Aventura and downtown Miami.
Other commissioners expressed urgency. Because the project is envisioned as a private-public partnership, Commissioner Sally Heyman said, it would be difficult to attract private operators unless the county votes on a resolution expressing its commitment to the project.
"I do not want taxi companies interested in the project to get shut out by bureaucracy," Ms. Heyman said. "They would not want to waste $60,000 to write a proposal just to sit on it for years."
Commissioner Katy Sorenson also urged the county manager to move on a resolution.
The MPO staff plans to set up a boat trip with officials from the county's parks department and the Department of Environmental Resource Management and report on the trip's findings to its governing board when it meets Nov. 9. Mr. Mesa said Miami-Dade Transit should be the public managing agency in a partnership and recommended a five-year trial period to gauge the viability of permanent water transit in the county.
According to Mr. Burgess' report, the $16 million to $18 million would cover the first year of the pilot program. It would cost about $3.5 million to operate in subsequent years. Annual ridership is estimated to be 240,000 passengers.
Mr. Burgess recommends in the report seeking funding from federal, state and local sources. The federal Ferry Boat Discretionary Program allocated about $130 million for purchase of vessels and facility construction over the next three years, and monies could also come from state transportation funds and the local People's Transportation Plan.
The county's planning organization issued a request for letters of interest earlier this year, getting responses from two companies — Water Taxi Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, which has operated similar services in Broward County and South Beach, and Metro Aqua Cats, a company formed with the goal of establishing service here.
Peter Evans, owner of Metro Aqua Cats, said there would be several major hurdles to clear before the service becomes a reality. New vessels would have to be designed and built to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility guidelines, Mr. Evans said.
Another obstacle would be acquiring permits to set up docking facilities, Mr. Evans said. All potential docking sites are owned by the county or municipalities, he said, meaning it could take at least two years to finish the permitting phase.
If Metro Aqua Cats is awarded the project by the county, it would be ready to move along quickly with a request for proposal, he said.
"We do have companies ready to go ahead," Mr. Evans said. "We are waiting for the county to say yes."