More water taxis could be taking passengers to waterfront hotels, restaurants and downtowns along the Intracoastal Waterway if a proposed countywide system for registering boat operators proves successful.
Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday are expected to decide whether to ask county attorneys to draft language to create a registry for operators of water taxis and tour boats that want to serve coastal cities from Jupiter to Boca Raton.
“There are operators who are interested,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities and coordinator of a water-taxi task force. “We’re trying to make something for the industry to get started. We’re trying to make it low regulation.”
Several water taxis and tour boats already operate in Palm Beach County — including the Peanut Island Water Taxi that charges $10 round trip for rides to Peanut Island from Riviera Beach Marina; a catamaran that runs historical tours and Peanut Island shuttles from Sailfish Marina on Singer Island; and the narrated, two-hour tours that leave at 2 p.m. daily from Panama Hattie’s restaurant in North Palm Beach and take passengers south to Palm Beach for $24.
Addison Closson’s American Buccaneer — a 65-foot wooden shrimp boat that carries up to 125 passengers — is scheduled to begin regular shuttles Wednesday from the north floating dock in downtown West Palm Beach to the Maritime Museum dock on Peanut Island. The round-trip adult fare will be $17.50.
Closson, who recently moved to Palm Beach County from Rhode Island, plans to offer departures from downtown West Palm Beach to Peanut Island every two hours beginning at 10 a.m. Wednesday through Sunday. He will supplement his business with history tours and cruises for kids in after-school programs.
“We’re not just transportation,” Closson said. “We’re entertainment.”
But so far, there is no coordinated system of water taxis offering regular service to the 17 or so waterfront destinations along the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach County — partly because the cost of running a boat without the guarantee of passengers is a risky business model for boat operators who must pay for fuel, licensed captains, maintenance and insurance.
“We’ve been talking about this for 20 years,” said Chris Doyle, owner of the Water Taxi of the Palm Beaches based at Panama Hattie’s restaurant. “We’re starting to see the potential. Whether it’s economically feasible is another story.”
Other forms of public transportation, such as Tri-Rail and Palm Tran, are subsidized.
Palm Beach County Mayor Steven Abrams said he would not be willing to offer subsidies to water taxi operators.
“I don’t see it as mass transportation,” Abrams said. “I see it as niche transportation.”
The Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization has spent about $980,000 in federal grant money to establish eight handicapped-accessible water-taxi docks from Boynton Beach to Jupiter. The organization oversees how state and federal money for roads and transportation improvements is spent.
The network of water-taxi stops is beginning to attract boat operators, but the system still needs marketing and coordination to boost ridership, said Angela Morlok, MPO principal planner.
Morlok said there are no ridership numbers for tour boats and water taxis in the county, but the MPO hopes to get more data on ridership in future meetings with boat operators.
Radcliffe said boat owners could work with waterfront restaurants and hotels to guarantee themselves a steady source of income and allow more passengers to travel to destinations by boat instead of fighting for parking at waterfront venues. The registry system also would promote ecotourism boats, such as those offering bird-watching tours.
As envisioned, the water taxi registry would make boat owners show proof of a licensed captain, a Coast Guard inspection and liability insurance. Operators would agree to indemnify the cities where their boats stop and would be able to buy a $25 sticker for each city they planned to serve.
“This is a concept,” Radcliffe said. “I want something to bring to the cities to see if they buy into it.”
Lake Worth Commissioner Andy Amoroso said he would love to see passengers come to Lake Worth by boat from, say, Boynton Beach or Delray Beach, for special events such as the Street Painting Festival — or simply for lunch.
“The biggest problem is there’s not going to be a lot of money in it,” Amoroso said. “When the smoke clears, they’re going to do the stops that are financially viable, and I hope Lake Worth is one of them.”
Vivian Brooks, executive director of the Boynton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, said the water-taxi dock at Boynton Harbor Marina offers passengers arriving by boat access to several restaurants, bars and charter boats offering fishing and scuba diving trips. Brooks said several water-taxi operators have considered stopping at the Boynton Beach marina but “couldn’t quite figure out how to make the numbers work.”
Riviera Beach Marina should be a popular water-taxi stop after the marina redevelopment brings in stores and new restaurants in 2016, City Manager Ruth Jones said.
“We would expect to be one of the major stops,” Jones said, noting that the city marina is close to Peanut Island and is a home port for several fishing and diving charter boats.