County panels study concepts for water taxi
By Wayne Tompkins
The hovercraft safely skims over manatees and seabed grasses as its 50 passengers glide 30 mph across Biscayne Bay. The vessel links commuters and tourists between downtown Miami and both Haulover and Matheson Hammock parks, all at an affordable price.
The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization's water-taxi vision could be realized as a pilot program under review at several agencies, though the required permitting could take 18 months.
According to a newly released report MPO transportation planner Jesus Guerra prepared for the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, a hovercraft-type vessel appears to be the best way to make a water taxi feasible.
A hovercraft travels over a smooth water surface, riding an air cushion that is propelled downward against the surface. Because no part of the vessel travels underwater, it is ideal for avoiding manatees and environmentally sensitive submerged grasses.
Still, its small capacity makes it far from perfect for a water taxi.
Mr. Guerra said that while he would like to find a vessel that carries more passengers and makes less noise, a larger vessel would have even more drawbacks.
A catamaran-type vessel under consideration would be quieter and could carry a more cost-effective 150 passengers but would be prohibitively slow and require sonar to detect manatees.
Mr. Guerra commented in the report that an Internet search for such a device was unsuccessful (the closest thing available was for whales).
"It's a feasible project, but it's taken a lot of evaluation," Mr. Guerra said. "For example, the hovercraft doesn't touch the water, but it will only hold (30-50) passengers. With the catamaran, it's a lot bigger — but you have not just the manatee issue but the seagrass beds as well."
Both vessels would cost about the same, about $1.2 million.
What appears clear, however, is that the service would be popular.
Based on a Kimley-Horn and Associates study, the proposed routes could generate an average of 200,000 passengers per year.
The Miami-Dade Commission and other elected bodies in the county have praised the initiative.
The total capital cost is estimated at between $13 million and $16 million, including the cost of the vessels, docking and terminal facilities. It would cost as much as $4.5 million a year to operate. Federal, state and local sources will be sought to fund the project.
Mr. Guerra said that "under the worst-case scenario," it would take 59 minutes to travel from downtown to Haulover Park and 28 minutes to Matheson Hammock Park.
The service would be limited to 6 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays due to parking requirements and availability, he said.
Three companies have expressed interest in providing the service, Mr. Guerra said.