Kane company to get water taxi contract

Harbor Boating expected to better serve commuters

December 22, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Inner Harbor moved a step closer to expanding its popular water taxi service yesterday when one of three competing companies was chosen for exclusive contract negotiations with the city.

The winning proposal from Harbor Boating Inc., a company commonly known as Ed Kane's Water Taxi, pledged to maintain its service around the Inner Harbor and help the city seek state and federal funds to develop a broader commuter system, according to owner Cameron Kane.

The proposal states that Harbor Boating, operated by Kane, will continue as the city's sole provider of water transportation. Its partner, Living Classrooms Foundation, which ran a competing water taxi service until this year, will assist with marketing and ticket sales, provide additional job training programs and coordinate with federal and local officials to secure government funding.

Ferrying people around the harbor has been a high-profile business, attracting some 600,000 passengers a year, promoting tourist sites and generating millions of dollars.

But the water taxi business encountered trouble after a boat run by the Living Classrooms company capsized in an accident, killing five people in March. A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report released this week found that the water shuttle was carrying 700 pounds too much weight because of outdated safety standards.

Living Classrooms settled a lawsuit with survivors this fall, announced it would no longer operate a water shuttle business and formed a strategic partnership with its former rival, now known as Harbor Boating.

Members of a joint city panel who approved the bid said Harbor Boating's long experience with passenger boat service in downtown Baltimore, its strong safety record and its ambitious but realistic plan for expansion secured their approval.

In exchange for exclusive rights to city-owned landings from Canton to Fort McHenry, Harbor Boating pledged to study the market for commuters and create a plan to attract them to the water taxi service, officials said.

"They have submitted a proposal that allows for the continuation of existing services around the harbor and calls for more services for commuters," said Andrew Frank, a vice president at the Baltimore Development Corp. who reviewed the competing bids. "It's a very thoughtful and specific plan."

In forming a partnership with Harbor Boating, Living Classrooms brought its substantial track record of sponsoring programs for inner-city youth, the type of civic-minded enterprise encouraged by the city contract process, Frank said.

For tourists and commuters, much of the water taxi system will look the same. Eventually the service could develop and integrate with other forms of transportation, linking future park-and-ride lots near Interstate 95 to water taxis.

The wait time between boats is expected to drop to no more than 15 minutes during operating hours, Frank said.

Kane said that her company would continue to offer a $50 yearly pass for unlimited rides on water taxis. It will continue to operate about 10 months a year, closing in January and February, she said.

But Cameron said she was unsure whether the company would change its rate of $6 per person for daily passengers.

Harbor Boating was selected by a panel from the Baltimore Development Corp. and the city's Department of Transportation to provide water taxi service in the Inner Harbor and Outer Harbor of the Patapsco River.

One losing bidder lashed out at the process yesterday, saying that the BDC wrote its bidding specifications to favor Harbor Boating over its competitors.

"We felt the fix was in from the beginning," said Ron Morgan, who once operated a water taxi service bought out by Living Classrooms.

The other unsuccessful bid came from a group spearheaded by Mary Ann Cricchio, owner of a well-known Little Italy restaurant. Her business partner on the project could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In an interview, Morgan argued that no company could compete against Harbor Boating because it was in partnership with Living Classrooms, which had exclusive docking rights at Fort McHenry, a stop required by the city. He said he plans to sue the city over the bid process.

Morgan's proposal emphasized turning the water taxi service into an attraction featuring the city's history by using 19th century-style boats and costumes for employees.

He said his company would have paid the city $150,000 a year for the contract and reduced the daily ticket from $6 to $3. Kane declined to say how much her company offered to pay the city for the right to dock her boats on city landings.

City officials said Morgan's complaints are baseless.

According to Frank, securing rights to dock at Fort McHenry was not a requirement of winning the project, as Morgan contended. Frank also said that Harbor Boating offered the most substantial plan for future water taxi service, backed by a strong financial track record.

City officials will now enter into a 60-day negotiation period with Harbor Boating for a contract. Once the contract has been made final, it must be approved by the city's Board of Estimates. The term of the contract is expected to start in March and last seven years.

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