Water Taxi sues Broward after funds withheld
By Charlotte Libov
A company seeking to establish a water transit service here is suing Broward County after officials there dissolved its working relationship with the company.
In a Circuit Court lawsuit filed last week, Bob Bekoff, president of Water Taxi Inc., alleges that Broward County breached its operating agreement with the company and has blocked the company's right to collect federal funds for providing service.
Broward Mayor Ben Graber said the county dismissed Water Taxi because its boats are not equipped for the handicapped.
He said the county expected the lawsuit. "We feel the county is in a strong position," he said.
Mr. Beckoff said the company's boats comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Water Taxi and Metro Aqua Cats of Miami were the only companies that responded to a nationwide search by Miami-Dade County officials seeking letters from companies interested in establishing a high-speed service to ferry commuters across Biscayne Bay to downtown Miami.
Mr. Graber said the Broward commission decided in March to sever ties with Water Taxi. The county will no longer subsidize nor funnel grant money to the company, which had been operating boats as part of a county transit fleet that also includes city buses. The decision came amid concerns that using the company's boats would open the county to liability claims from disabled passengers.
Mr. Graber said the county recently paid $437,500 to settle a suit that claimed the county's transportation system - primarily its bus stops - did not comply with the disabilities act and launched a $10 million program to upgrade the system.
"The biggest problem we had was that this was part of our public transportation service because once you do that, certain federal guidelines kick in - especially with the American Disabilities Act. If it's a private business, you can do what you want, but since it's a public-private partnership, Broward County became liable for all those ADA lawsuits. It would open the county up to opportunistic lawsuits," Mr. Graber said.
"Mr. Bekoff is a nice gentleman and runs a nice taxi, but the funding mechanism is going to have problems," said Mr. Graber. He said he "would recommend that Dade County look at that as well."
Mr. Bekoff said his boats comply with the disabilities act and Mr. Graber's account is "a total misrepresentation ... a falsehood and foolishness."
Mr. Bekoff said his company paid $25,000 to cover legal costs in the settlement as a matter of routine and not an indication that his boats were not in compliance. He said the county reneged on its promise to pass along federal and state funds for the service.
"They got to keep the money that we'd earned and denied us the right to apply for the funds," he said.
His service continues to operate in Fort Lauderdale, he said, as a private operation with fewer stops. Ridership fell off when the company raised its daily rate from $7 to $10 to compensate for the loss of public funds, he said. As a result, he said, it's changed from a commuter to a tourist service.
"The real shame and the bottom line of all this is the federal and state available dollars are available because of our service," he said, "and as soon as we stop service, they no longer will come to Broward County."
Miami-Dade County's Metropolitan Planning Organization is reviewing plans submitted by the two companies, said staff director José Luis Mesa.
The county did not request information regarding handicapped compliance in the preliminary request for information, Mr. Mesa said, but would specify it in later talks.
"There wasn't mention of that at this step, but that would definitely be addressed when we ask them to submit a service plan. It's required to have that accessibility as part of the services that are offered," he said.
In their proposals, Mr. Bekoff and Peter Evans, owner of Metro Aqua Cats, said their plans would incorporate vessels that meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.