About a dozen people met this week to discuss the first steps of studying the possibility of a water taxi in Newport Harbor.
The Water Taxi Ad Hoc Committee, consisting of Harbor Commissioners Doug West, Dave Girling and Joe Stapleton, and city staff members Chris Miller and Shannon Levin, met Tuesday for the first time. Several members of the public were also in attendance.
The group is tasked with determining whether or not a water taxi system would be feasible in Newport Harbor, and if so, launch a pilot program to test the project. The idea is one of Mayor Rush Hill’s initiatives for 2014.
A water taxi service is not a new idea and the committee started off by reviewing the report written in 2009 by the Newport Beach Water Taxi Exploratory Committee, headed up by John Corrough, who participated in Tuesday’s discussion.
The 2009 report mentions that several “intrepid private entrepreneurs” have unsuccessfully attempted the water taxi business, West noted.
Reasons for failure included: Initial undercapitalization, lack of customers/not creating enough revenues through fares, too few vessels, lack of operator experience, inadequate continuing advertising, lack of available/suitable dock facilities near destinations among others.
The main cause, West explained, was because of existing and competing ferry, rental boats, residents’ bay boats and tour boats.
“The existing, competitive environment in the harbor is something that this committee has to consider,” West said. “It’s the context of which anything would be done.”
The current committee has to consider whether or not there is a real demand in the harbor for this service, given the alternatives that people already have, West said.
“That’s the key,” Girling said. “What is the true demand?”
The committee needs to look at current avenues available for this type of service and make sure this project wouldn’t cannibalize those operators, especially if it’s subsidized, Girling added.
“It goes to the question, ‘What are we trying to accomplish that we don’t already have at some level?’” West said.
In 2009, that topic became a heated discussion both within and outside the committee, Corrough said.
“I don’t want to pretend that that issue doesn’t exist,” West said.
West also mentioned that a 2010 survey of 727 households in Newport Beach found that 42 percent of people would use a water taxi instead of their car if it were available, 57 percent said they would not and 1 percent said they did not know. It also found that 45 percent of residents would use a water bus instead of their car if it existed and 55 percent would not.
“Residents were generally split about whether or not they would utilize a water taxi or water bus service if they were available,” the survey report states.
In 2009, the committee considered three system concepts, West explained, basic, expanded and on-call only.
The basic system would have a hub location and use a fleet of five vessels providing a combination of loop, point-to-point and on-call routes.
The basic system would be a “trial run” to test the market, facilities, vessels, operations and financial performance, according to the 2009 report.
Expanded system concept all depends on the success of the basic system during the first year, West explained. It included upgraded facilities at the base location, adding vessels, routes, schedules, trip frequency, hours of operation, fees and other services.
The on-call only system would also use a central base or bases which would respond only to requests for dock pick-up and drop-off locations relayed by a dispatch or reservation system and from dock “agents” handling walk-up business at high volume docks, according to the report.
Resident Jim Mosher also noted that the “fedex” model, take passengers to a central location and then re-route them out to their destinations, could possibly be an option to look into.
The group also discussed the water taxi system used at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
It’s important to really understand these systems to determine which would be most appropriate for Newport Harbor, Girling said.
Commissioners also discussed a few other highlights from the 2009 report, including the estimated costs.
The potential start-up cost to a private operator was estimated between $200,000 and $300,000. The city start-up costs (to upgrade docks, post signage and other “in-kind” startup elements) was estimated between $50,000 and $60,000.
The cost of the vessels in the report is “severely underestimated,” said Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, during public comment.
Girling questioned one of the goals mentioned in the 2009 report regarding the water taxi system alleviating some traffic congestion. It’s a valid point, he said, but he wondered how much it would realistically help.
He also suggested updating the comparison of other harbors with water taxi services. Factors to consider should include what type of system is used, what populations are served, what subsidies did they receive, if at all, what federal, state and local grants were received and more.
The technology research also needs to be updated, Stapleton said. He emphasized the benefits of integrating technology into the project. There could be an app that would tell customers where the water taxi is at in the harbor, its route and allow people to request a pick-up, he suggested.
The committee made some key assumptions: A that a water taxi service could not operate, at least initially, on a break even basis; all water taxi vessels and personnel would be subject to U.S. Coast Guard regulatory requirements; a financially feasible water taxi would be seasonable, at best; there is some semblance of infrastructure already in place in terms of public docks; and the needed technology is available.
Mosher pointed out that if tolerable, feasible maximum wait times and fares aren’t possible, then it should be assumed that the project still won’t work.
“If it’s not efficient and it’s not speedy, it won’t work,” Stapleton said.
The 101-page 2009 report is available for the public to read on the Water Taxi Ad Hoc Committee page on the city website.
The next meeting is scheduled for April 7 at 4:30 p.m. in the Crystal Cove Conference Room at the Civic Center.