Water taxi future uncertain

Water taxi future uncertain
The first of two water taxis purchased by the Mayor’s Office without approval of City Council was delivered June 12 to Sadler Point Marine

Over in Ortega, along Roosevelt Boulevard, the Sea Charm I sits on blocks while her sister ship is supposedly on the way to Jacksonville, both in wait for ownership and eventual operation.

When Brooks Busey, owner/operator of Sadler Point Marina, took delivery of the first water taxi last month, he probably did not anticipate that the boat would linger at his facility and then take up valuable boat repair lease space in the yard for more than a day or two.

The smaller of the two water taxis, with a capacity for 49 people, arrived on June 12, a week later than the City had hoped to receive them. The larger taxi, capable of holding 102 people, is on the way according to most recent reports, despite a stern letter sent to Trident Pontoons, Inc. from the Office of General Counsel on June 11 requesting the funds be returned and the boats not be delivered.

The saga began when longtime operator S.S. Marine Ventures had decided not to renew its contract at the end of 2012. Then Baltimore-based HarborCare, LLC ran the water taxi service with plans to improve the fleet, but when their bid was not accepted by the City’s Procurement Division, the company gave what amounted to two weeks’ notice that it would cease operation on June 6. Loss of business during the Southbank Riverwalk construction was also a concern for HarborCare’s continuation without a contract in place.

Residents may have followed the hot potato – with little to no amusement – back and forth between the Office of the Mayor, City Council, and Trident Pontoons, and it’s definitely no laughing matter to the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

Riverkeeper not considered, consulted
For several years, the Riverkeeper had worked with S.S. Marine Taxi and then with HarborCare – operating as Jacksonville Water Taxi – to charter the boat for educational purposes. Jennie Busey, education director for the Riverkeeper, offers a river exploration program for 4th to 12th grade students that is dependent upon an open configuration. The smaller of the two new taxis is partially enclosed, thus limiting what Busey can do with the two-hour ecological river journey.

“We are very disappointed about the situation with the water taxis. We had been working with Jacksonville Water Taxi to develop more opportunities for the community to get out on the water and learn about our St. Johns River. This is a big setback for us, schools and the general public, as we have had to put our eco-tours on hold,” said Jimmy Orth, executive director for the Riverkeeper. “Outside of the kayak outfitters, we are really the only group or business that provides St. John’s River eco-tours on a regular basis.

Orth stated that the small boat purchased by the City unfortunately does not appear to be suitable for the type of educational boat trips that the Riverkeeper typically provides. “We are hoping that the larger boat that has been purchased will meet our needs and that we will be able to contract for its services. If the second boat is also enclosed and is not available to charter, then we don’t know what we will do,” he concluded. “Unfortunately, limited opportunities already exist in Jacksonville for the community to have these type of on-the-water educational experiences.”

When asked about whether the specifications for the water taxis would accommodate the needs of the Riverkeeper, City of Jacksonville Director of Communications David DeCamp said, “The City continues to seek a long-term operator who will provide water taxi service with the opportunity for eco-tourism rides. Eco-tourism is part of the request for proposals for water taxi operators, and that request was already in the process of being advertised prior to your question. Additionally, we have sought information from the National Park Service about options to coordinate with the federal agency on its plans for eco-tours for our attractive national parks areas here.”

Back at Sadler Point, Brooks Busey is matter-of-fact about his minor role in the drama, stating that he’ll store the boats at a discounted rate until there is an owner willing to accept them, at which time he’ll put them back into the water for service. Sadler Point Marina is very familiar with Trident Pontoons, having serviced the five water taxis operated by S.S. Marine Taxi and the new research vessel at Jacksonville University, all of which were built by Trident Pontoons. Busey is not sure if he will receive a contract to maintain the new water taxis. That will depend on the party who will ultimately own and operate the water taxis.

Stay tuned and, if you enjoyed the Cityscape by water, consider a different view – by Skyway.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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