After voting to extend its unsuccessful water taxi service for one month to cover Art Basel, the City will go back to the drawing board. Commissioners sought a commuter ferry between Miami Beach and the mainland when they asked for proposals last year. Instead, they got a weekend-only service from a lone bidder. That service has proven unpopular with only 377 riders during the one-year pilot program from the Purdy Dock at the Miami Beach Marina to Omni and Bayside Park.
“Of those 377, 144 boarded at Purdy and went somewhere else,” Transportation Director Jose Gonzalez told members of the Commission’s Neighborhood and Community Affairs Committee. “And 233 of them disembarked at Purdy so [they] came from somewhere else or the trip originated somewhere else.”
Water Taxi Miami manager Jessica Hernandez said after thousands of people used the service during the 2015 boat show, the company knew it could be successful with special events and during last year’s Art Basel show, 700 riders used the service. But on a regular basis, the schedule is not what people are looking for. “I think that the main issue has been availability,” she said. “The locals that we talked to want it every day.” Despite deep discounts and, sometimes, free trips, the weekend schedule still wasn’t appealing.
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said, “I think the reason that it’s failed – and it has failed given the numbers – is lack of communication, lack of education with the community. I’ve never gotten anything about the water taxi. I bet if you ask ten residents they’re going to tell you that they don’t know about it either.”
While Water Taxi Miami was interested in a two-year extension of the agreement, Gonzalez told Committee members that both sides have expressed concerns. From the City side, the limited schedule and concerns with the lack of on-site monitoring at Purdy and use of different vessels from those specified in the agreement were listed as issues.
Meanwhile, Hernandez said the company had issues with construction work in the area which prevented people from getting to the dock, bridge construction which meant the taxi was not able to come under the bridge to get to the Purdy Dock, broken docks at the marina, and illegal boats parked where the taxi docks. Given the bridge schedule, the taxi was not able to make stops if it meant waiting for the dock to clear and then miss the bridge opening.
Another major issue is the cost of the service, $15 one way. As Max Vlessing, manager and owner of Water Taxi Miami pointed out to RE:MiamiBeach in August most major cities with successful water taxi service subsidize it. Gonzalez raised that as an issue with the Committee and Mayor Philip Levine told Commissioners the same thing at their meeting this week.
“The only way ferry transportation works in any cities around the world is with major public subsidy,” Levine said. “The same way we’re paying for the trolleys and work to provide that for all our residents, you gotta do the same thing with this. So, in other words, you’re never going to get what you want unless you pay for it,” he said, acknowledging that that would be a decision for the new Commission and Mayor.
Gonzalez asked Commissioners for a month-to-month extension to give the department time to come up with various options for making a service viable.
Commissioner John Alemán said she would support an extension through December so that the service could run during Art Basel, but not a month-to-month agreement. “Not only has the ridership been extremely low but the vendor is not meeting their contractual obligation to the City to have the boat ramp supervised,” she said. “That was our main concern. So it’s not making a dent in our transportation problem and it’s not bringing in any revenue of any sort, any material revenue to the City, but it’s creating a public safety risk at the dock. That was a key consideration in allowing the water taxi was that at the public ramp it had to be supervised and that’s the one thing they’ve been failing to do.”
“If we don’t subsidize it and tell people it exists, then, of course, we’re going to have a poor outcome like we saw,” Rosen Gonzalez opined.
Outgoing Commissioner Joy Malakoff said the original idea was for a commuter ferry. “We have water all around us. There’s no reason that commuters cannot take a boat … What [Water Taxi Miami] is doing now is on weekends and that’s strictly for tourists and that’s not what we wanted.” She agreed the City should go back out “to see if there are other responders who are interested in actually doing a ferry service for people on a regular schedule” while acknowledging that such a service would need to be subsidized.
Given the service connects to the mainland, the City is only one piece of the puzzle. City Manager Jimmy Morales told Commissioners, “The County is trying to figure out a way to turn this into a commuter service. The problem is it’s very cost prohibitive but we’ll keep working on it.”
The Transportation Department will work on ideas to present at the Commission meeting in December.
Photo: Water Taxi Miami