weekend-only water taxi not catching on

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

weekend-only water taxi not catching on:

larger vision for commuter taxi still a ways off

With much fanfare, the City launched a pilot water taxi service between Miami Beach and Miami at the end of last year. Since that time, ridership has declined precipitously with only 117 total passenger trips between April 1 and June 30.
The taxi runs Friday through Sunday from the Purdy Avenue dock with stops at Sea Isle Marina, Bayside Marketplace, and Miami Beach Marina. Special event service during Art Basel in December carried 253 passengers between Miami and Miami Beach during a three-day period.
From January 1 through March 31, the City’s second quarter, there were 233 total trips with 79 passengers boarding at Purdy Avenue. Ridership was cut in half during the quarter ending June 30 with 117 trips, 38 starting at Purdy Avenue.
When asked why ridership is so low – schedule, pricing, or interest – the answer from those involved is “all of the above”.
City Transportation Director Jose Gonzalez told RE:MiamiBeach the original solicitation was for a commuter-type service that would run seven days a week. Water Taxi Miami, which was chosen as the concessionaire, preferred piloting weekend service to build ridership and community awareness according to Gonzalez. “They proposed a very limited service,” he said. “It only operates Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from about 11:40 am to 7:10 pm during the summer. The fall and winter hours are actually reduced from that with a frequency of service of every ninety minutes.” Given that’s what Water Taxi Miami was willing to operate, that was the proposal approved by the City Commission to test for one year.
The vision originally articulated in the 2014 solicitation was bigger with a two-deck vessel, air conditioned on the lower level, operating seven days a week covering morning and afternoon commutes on weekdays. “We wanted to initiate an alternative service, an option to traveling across the causeway in the car,” Gonzalez said. In the initial proposal, the thought was that “we would be providing service through South Beach, Mid-Beach and downtown Miami and over on the mainland there would be a couple stops as well, the Omni, downtown, the regional metro rail system. We were envisioning a commuter alternative.”
Gonzalez said “a more expansive service that is commuter based” is the ultimate goal, however "the service that our concessionaire was willing to provide was the service they are currently providing. They found that to be prudent in terms of moving forward.”
Based on the performance of the current pilot and changes in some of the requirements for the service, Gonzalez said the administration is recommending a new solicitation for a water taxi service. Initially, the City placed responsibility for construction of a new dock at Purdy Avenue on the concessionaire. Now, the City is moving forward to build it. Completion is expected in early 2018.
In a Letter to Commission this month, City Manager Jimmy Morales also noted concerns with Water Taxi Miami using 6 passenger boats instead of the required 38 passenger vessel, not providing agreed upon on-site monitoring and oversight at the Purdy Avenue dock, and schedule deviations.
Another option to the City issuing its own solicitation for service would be to partner with the County though they are only at the point of updating a 2006 feasibility study on waterborne transportation solutions with no completion date determined.
“Definitely the schedule is not ideal,” Gonzalez said. “It is not conducive to the commuter market which is a big market, at least from our perspective, that we’re trying to attract. It’s our objective to make options available to our residents, to our community, our businesses such that residents do not have to rely on their cars. So we’re trying to promote and put those alternative transportation methods out there including our trolley, this water taxi service as well.”
He thinks the type of vessel plays a role in the lower ridership numbers. The higher capacity, air conditioned boats will be more comfortable, he said. “The more comfortable the vessel is, the more attractive option it is for the users.”
One-way fares are $15 for adults and children five years and older, $7.50 for children one to four years of age, and $10 for members of the military and senior citizens. Miami Beach residents also pay a reduced fare of $10. Between now and September 30, there is a promotional $6 fare. Gonzalez said the promotional pricing may help determine if cost is a factor.
Max Vlessing, Manager of Water Taxi Miami, said he wishes the City would be a little more flexible in letting him try different options such as adding or subtracting hours or making other service changes. “It’s a pilot program to try to figure out what would be a best way to make this a success.” But government doesn’t operate the same as a small business. “It’s a little tough because they have to go through so many different people,” he said. “Nobody can make their own decisions in the City. It has to go in front of this and in front of that and by the time you make a change the pilot program is finished and you still haven’t achieved anything. The pilot program should be there to make changes, to make it better but it takes too long of a time to make changes.”
Vlessing is able to test the pricing and he’s doing that with the special fare through September. Under the contract with Water Taxi Miami, the City receives a surcharge on each ticket sold at the Purdy Avenue dock. With the small ridership, the financial benefits have been trivial. The Q2 fees totaled $71.75 with an additional $506 in surcharges resulting from Art Basel. From the most recent quarter, the City will collect $35.25.
Ultimately, Vlessing agrees the hours need to be expanded to seven days but, he said, the City needs to provide the service for free. “Not one ferry boat or bus route in the U.S. makes money and they’re all funded by the government, all of them,” he said. “If you look at New York, if you look at San Francisco, any bus operator is funded by the government.”
But it isn’t that simple. In order to be successful, Vlessing said, the infrastructure needs to be more complete. “It’s not easy to do here because the whole success of a water taxi is location,” he explained. “But besides the location you need continuous infrastructure after that so if there’s someone you drop off at Purdy Avenue, there needs to be a connection to their location. If they work on 41st Street, how do they get to 41st Street?”
“If the City really wants to have a commuter service, they need to do that at a different level,” he said. “They need to put some money on the table and … they need to put an infrastructure together [with] a connection to the locations we drop off and then you can have a commuter service.”
Without those connections, Vlessing said, the Purdy Avenue dock is a challenging location. He would prefer being able to pick up and drop off at the end of Lincoln Road. “Walking from Purdy Dock to Lincoln Road is quite far. We always said we’d like to start on the end of Lincoln Road because that would make more sense because that’s where people go and work.”
There is no dock at the end of Lincoln Road, but Vlessing said his vessels have bumpers on the front and the ability to let people off in locations without a physical dock. A Lincoln Road location would also avoid the delays of waiting for the bascule bridge on the Venetian Causeway to open or the long disruptions when the bridge is broken and remains in the closed position.
“Of course you can’t change the location,” he said. “It has to go in front of the Commission and do a public meeting. But they made a beautiful little park there [at the end of Lincoln Road]. It would be a great place to drop off and pick up people there.”
Asked if he could sustain the route with such a low ridership, Vlessing said, “It’s not our main location. We’ve operated for the last seven years in Miami. Our main location is Bayside Marketplace in Miami” with many stops. “We just incorporate Purdy Avenue into our route on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. But Purdy is not the moneymaker. It should be different.”
Looking at the bigger vision, Vlessing said, every two years the federal government offers $30M in grant funding for ferry transportation. “What I believe is that the City of Miami Beach, City of Miami, Dade County should come together, be on the same page. Find an operator who has the experience already in the area. Have them operate a ferry service like they’re looking for and apply for the grants.”  Right now, he said, all of the government entities are going in different directions. “Dade County is doing something on their own now, doing an investigation into routes, which really doesn’t make much sense. The City of Miami Beach is doing a pilot program with me, but something small. The City of Miami is doing something on their own, but they all have to be entangled with each other. It’s not Miami needs a water taxi or Miami Beach needs a water taxi. They should come together and put this thing together but that grant is only available until October so if they really want to do something, they need to do something.” The grant program, he said, can be used for building docks and buying vessels that would be operated by private entities but the local governments need to apply for them.
Scott Diffenderfer, president of the Belle Isle Residents Association, spent eight years on the City’s Transportation Committee. He currently sits on the Sustainability Committee where alternative transportation is often a topic of discussion. To him, the idea of a water taxi is a no brainer. “We’re nothing but water so, of course, I think it’s amazing,” he said. “The city is gorgeous from the water and it’s a great opportunity to be on the water and get from point A to point B without sitting in traffic.” Asked if he’s used the water taxi or knows anyone who has, he said no due to the infrequency of it.
Diffenderfer agrees with Vlessing on the lack of connections. “This town is notorious for putting these things in place and then there’s the so-called last mile. You have no way to get there,” he said. “If you’re a businessperson and you’re going to work you can’t walk in 90 degree heat and rain. You’re a sopping mess by the time you get to work so you’ve got to have an immediate connection with something else.”
“I can’t believe that uber hasn’t come up with a regular uber water taxi,” he said. “Public access. That to me would be the next step of this. Something at a scheduled time that runs very infrequently is not going to work but if you have something regularly running – which I know is expensive to start without having ridership – but if you had the uber scenario with it, I can’t imagine that wouldn’t be a very popular item. To run from Sunset Harbour to Shuckers in North Bay Village, I would use that all the time. Or from Sunset Harbour to Edgewater or close to the metro mover where you could hop on and go to Brickell. Those are the types of things that I would use it for all the time.”
On the lack of a full service taxi, Diffenderfer said, “It’s sad to me. It’s a no brainer and no one can seem to figure it out.” Like Vlessing, he said, “From everything I’ve ever experienced, the City is complicated and instead of giving incentives for people to do it they encumber the process. I don’t necessarily blame them, but you need someone to cut through the red tape and make it work and later compensate the City.” Other cities around the world, he said, are doing interesting things with transportation. “We really have to think outside the box in this.”
For now, the City is focused on getting the new Purdy Avenue dock built. “The City feels that until there’s a dock in place we may not get a lot of interest from the industry,” Gonzalez said. “We’re trying to move forward with that quickly so we can ultimately have the service that we’re envisioning, have that commuter water taxi service.”
For information on the water taxi and fares, click here (though the $6 promotional fare through September 30 is not listed on the website).

Photo: Water Taxi Miami

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