Water taxis proposed for Hillsborough River

02/17/09 Seán Kinane
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Even though the Hillsborough River runs directly through downtown Tampa and surrounding residential communities, it is rarely used as a transportation corridor. But that may soon change if groups pushing for a water transit service can turn their vision into reality.

Tampa’s Urban Charrette is a group of architects, planners, and community designers that, according to its website is “a design collaborative dedicated to research, education, and advocacy that assists communities to build more livable cities.” On Tuesday morning, next to the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa, WMNF spoke with Urban Charrette cofounder Taryn Sabia.

“We’re looking at the potential for a water transit service that would be a scheduled route that could take people from Columbus Drive all the way to Cotanchobee Park with about 12 stops along the way at places like the Performing Arts Center to Curtis Hixon Park, MacDill Park, and the Convention Center.”

Those stops, plus Tampa General Hospital, would be included in Phase I of the project that Urban Charrette has envisioned for a water transit service along the Hillsborough.

Sabia says that with the right momentum, a trial service could be established as soon as a year from now. That pilot program might include vessels leased from northern cities, such as Boston, that scale down water transit service during winter months. Sabia says they did not attempt to estimate the cost of operating the system, but they have estimated the price of docks and commissioning new watercraft.

“A vessel designed to specific specifications for our river and our dock types, which could probably run anywhere from $300,000 - $600,000 depending on what’s included in the vessel. So this would be for a covered vessel that would have fans and some kind of way to keep people cool during the hot months and keep them warm during the cold months. One of the vessels may even include air conditioning and wi-fi and things like that. So when you start including components like that for vessels that could be chartered it does bring the cost up.”

Each shaded dock would cost between $20,000 and $40,000, Sabia estimates. They would be modular and could be increased in size over time. Sabia says that vessels of the proposed water-borne commuting system -- that Urban Charrette has branded “Hydro” -- would be about 40-feet long and carry 49 passengers. They would be a maximum of 11-feet high in order to pass beneath all of the bridges south of Columbus Drive. Sabia says future route expansion could go north of Columbus, but passengers would have to change boats there because the bridge is too low.

“For Phase II, there’s an additional five stops, which includes the new Heights development, Curtis Hickson Park, Bayshore Boulevard, Knight’s Point at Harbor Island, and the potential of Marjorie Park on the southern part of Davis Islands. Phase III would be north of Columbus [Drive] traveling up toward Lowry Park and would include a stop at Rivercrest Park which is in the Seminole Heights neighborhood.”

Funding and governance for the project should be a public-private partnership, according to Sabia. She recommends that there be an interim managing entity at the beginning, but then a private operator should be selected.

Urban Charrette was commissioned to study water transit by the Tampa Downtown Partnership and presented their findings Tuesday morning during a session of the Partnership’s “debriefing series.”

Karen Kress is director of transportation & planning at the Tampa Downtown Partnership

“We were starting to hear people mention ‘What about a water taxi service?’ pretty frequently. So we decided that it was actually time to kind of buckle down and we ended up hiring the Urban Charrette to determine whether or not it’s a feasible service. And then after we started that process, we had the two companies – the Fun Boat and the White Lightning – come out and they’re kind of testing the waters for us. So it’s a perfect partnership to really get out there and see if the service would be viable.”

Kress says the system proposed by Urban Charrette would act more like a bus service, with regularly scheduled service times, rather than like the two existing Hillsborough River water taxi services available by appointment.

“What we hope to happen would be a scheduled service as opposed to an on-demand service that’s available now. So you would know when you show up at the Columbus Drive docking area at 8:10 am and then again at 8:40 or whatever the time points end up being, that you’ll be able to get on the boat and travel to downtown Tampa.”

The Tampa Downtown Partnership paid just under $10,000 to Urban Charrette for the study, according to Kress. The resulting 1,000 page document includes research on how permitting should proceed and has some leads on federal funding.

“Including one pot of federal money, called a ‘port field’ that only three cities in the U.S. are eligible for and Tampa is one of those. So that was a really key discovery for us. And like everyone, we’re watching the federal stimulus package. There’s some ferry money earmarked for that right now, too. So we’ll certainly continue to explore that and go after it.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita thinks the water transit idea presented by Urban Charrette could work in Tampa.

“It has to be a public-private partnership.”

The Hydro could be the beginning of a regional system of water transit, according to Ferlita.

“Well, you have to start small and start smart.”

Community advocate Dena Leavengood is a co-founder and facilitator of Tomorrow Matters!

“I think we really need one and it’s something that will grow in the future. I’m very excited about having transit. When I look at multimodal transit -- which is one of the things that’s so important for a community in order for it to work as well as it can -- water has to be an element that we look at.”

Urban Charrette

Tampa Downtown Partnership

previous WMNF coverage of Urban Charrette

report given to Hillsborough County on Hydro

Tampa River Taxi / The Fun Boat

Rivercrest Park

Marjorie Park

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