Water taxi upgrade sought

Baltimore officials want more commuter use

Providers would be cut to one

Link to buses, subways seen as key to success

October 18, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials hope to transform the Inner Harbor's popular water taxis into a year-round service catering to both tourists and commuters - while cutting the number of companies down to just one.

By this time next year, officials aim to have a contract in place that would give one company exclusive rights to all city-owned landings, in exchange for a guarantee of expanded service in and around the harbor.

The Baltimore Development Corp. has sent out a formal request for proposals to become the city's sole vendor for water taxi services starting in October next year. The deadline is Nov. 19, and a decision is expected early next year.

The water taxi business for tourists has long been a hot ticket, serving 600,000 passengers a year and generating millions of dollars in revenue. Two companies - Seaport Taxi and Ed Kane's Water Taxis - compete for business, stopping at more than a dozen docks and wharves from downtown to Canton and Fort McHenry.

For the city's forthcoming water taxi contract, planners want to promote marine transportation as a viable alternative to driving to work in downtown Baltimore.

The next water taxi operator has to come up with new ways to target commuters who have recently moved into some of the city's hottest waterfront neighborhoods, including Fells Point, Harbor East and Canton, if they hope to outbid the competition, officials said.

"About $2 billion in construction for new office and retail space is either recently completed or under construction in the Inner Harbor," said Andrew Frank, the BDC's executive vice president and interim Inner Harbor coordinator.

Before she moved to Nashville, Tenn., Shannon Goetz, 25, loved going to work by water taxi from her home in Federal Hill to her downtown office. On Friday, she returned to Fells Point by water taxi to show her boyfriend around the harbor without having to hunt for parking.

"I miss it," she said. "It was a great way to get around. ... A monthly pass would be a good idea, too."

Success, according to Frank, will depend on linking water taxi service with the city's other transportation services such as buses and subways.

But the effort to integrate the water taxi routes with bus, light rail and subway lines has not yet reached officials at the Maryland Transit Administration.

"The MTA has not had any detailed conversation on this topic," said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation. "Our focus must be on improving service that the MTA is currently responsible for."

Frank said Friday that the city wants to have a boat operator in place before mapping out a new transportation plan with the state. Applying for federal transportation dollars to subsidize the system also will be part of the plan, he said.

Under the current contract, Seaport Taxi and Water Taxi each pay $66,000 a year to use city docks.

Frank said the timing of the contract changes was in no way connected to the city's first fatal water taxi accident in March. A federal lawsuit, filed on behalf of the five who died and 19 of the 20 who survived, was settled this month for an undisclosed amount.

The new city contract could end the decades-old, sometimes bitter rivalry between the city's private water taxi companies.

The industry started in the 1970s with Ed Kane renting out sailboats, paddle boats and rowboats around the Inner Harbor.

At the mayor's request, he began operating a water taxi across the harbor.

Today his company, owned and operated by his widow, hauls about 400,000 passengers a year, making a dozen stops on 13 boats around the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton and near Fort McHenry.

"We don't have much power, but we have a hell of a lot of competitive spirit," said Cameron Kane.

Before his death, Ed Kane publicly feuded with the Living Classrooms Foundation, which runs competitor Seaport Taxi. The Living Classrooms Foundation had taken over formerly for-profit ventures such as the Inner Harbor paddle boats and the Harbor Shuttle, renaming it Seaport Taxi. In 1999, it outbid Kane for the paddle boat concession.

Living Classrooms' Seaport Taxi is able to dock directly at Fort McHenry, while Ed Kane's Water Taxis must pull in nearby and bus visitors to the federal historic site.

The strategy paid off. Seaport now serves an average of 200,000 passengers a year using a fleet of nine vessels to access 15 stops around the harbor.

At one point, the fierce competitors seemed to be near a truce. Ed Kane announced in 2002 that he would sell out to the foundation for $2 million, but he backed out of the deal a month later. Rumors about buyouts on both sides continue to swirl around the harbor.

"There is not really the market in Baltimore" for two companies to compete, Cameron Kane said.

But she quickly added that her company intends to fight to regain the city contract.

"When we get in a competitive situation, we go in 100 percent," she said. "I think it's enormously exciting."

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