The city of Jacksonville has reached a solution to save the water taxis on the St. Johns River.
It comes after Jacksonville Water Taxi notified the city that at close of business Friday, it will be forced to terminate its operation of the water taxi service.
And with a slew of events happening downtown this weekend, many at the same time, the city began looking for an emergency solution.
The result: purchase two water taxis (shown below) as a short-term solution. The city said it will buy a 102-passenger boat and a 50-seat boat, with the long-term goal of selling them when it hires a new contractor. The boats cost a total of $320,000.
Karen Bowling, the city's chief administrative officer, said the city has resources in place to operate the water taxis temporarily. Harbor Care will finish out its contract with the city on Friday, and the city will pick up operation with the new boats on Saturday at 11 a.m.
In the meantime, the city said the price to ride won't change, but the routes will, depending on what works best.
"We're absolutely delighted," Bowling said. "Nobody wants to find themselves in this kind of a situation, but a city this big, you're going to have problems."
Jacksonville Water Taxi's contract with the city is expiring, and last month the city rejected its bid for a new long-term contract.
"We have been honored to provide marine transportation services to the city of Jacksonville and hoped we would be afforded the opportunity to continue providing such vital transportation services," said Michael McDaniel, president and chief executive officer of Jacksonville Water Taxi. "It has been our privilege to serve the city, its residents, visitors and football fans; however, the rejection of our bid to continue service coupled with the expiration of our prior contract has left us with no option other than to initiate the withdrawal of our vessels.
"At a time when more and more people rely on affordable transportation options, it's not a step we wanted to take," McDaniel said. "So please allow us to thank the residents of Jacksonville for their loyalty, support and patronage. We would welcome the opportunity to serve you again in the future."
Since last year, a company called Harbor Care out of Baltimore has run the water taxi service and had plans to improve the fleet.
"Add elements of entertainment, narrated tours to public service announcements like you have on airlines," McDaniel said.
The company was also planning to offer private charters, group rates, themed rides, accept credit cards and give free tickets to military members. McDaniel said he was under the impression his company was going to be getting a long-term contract with the city. But Harbor Care and the city weren't able to come to terms.
"I think it all boils down to communication," McDaniel said. "I think if someone were to reach out to us and they had questions with the (Request For Proposal), a simple phone call would have clarified a lot of those issues."
"We weren't willing to engage in something that was bad for the city and bad for the taxpayers in terms of an operating agreement," said Greg Pease, city chief of the Procurement Division.
The Jacksonville Water Taxi had serviced five stops: The Jacksonville Landing, Friendship Fountain Park, Crowne Plaza Jacksonville-Riverfront, Chart House Restaurant and Wyndham Jacksonville Riverwalk, and the Metropolitan Park Marina. It ran from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. during the summer.
"I think it's terrible for it to go away because it's really the highlight of the city," said Brenda Searles, a frequent water taxi rider.
Thursday afternoon, the city scrambled, trying to find a company to temporarily take over service Saturday in time for a number of events going on downtown.
"We're very sensitive to that," Pease said. "We're very excited about all the events going on, but we want to make sure that we've got a viable, temporary replacement that's going to be safe, cost-effective to the city. We're not going to do anything that's going to put anyone at risk, but we do want to restore that service as quickly as possible."
Harbor Care said it has absolutely no animosity toward the city and wishes it all the success in the world. To thank the city for its support, the company is offering free rides for everyone Friday.
"If you really want to bring Jacksonville in the forefront of tourism, you need to keep the water taxi," Searles said.