City confident buyer will take water taxis

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Jacksonville water taxi saga continues.

There are still no boats in service downtown, and the city still hasn't received its money back for the two taxis it ordered.

But the city is confident a private buyer will take possession of them soon and the boats will return to the St. Johns River.

One taxi is being stored out of the water in Ortega as it waits for Coast Guard inspection, as well as an owner. The city refused delivery, and a second water taxi is still set to arrive in a few days.

The mayor's staff says they are not worried about getting the money back. A private business is stepping in to pay for the taxis and will lease them to the city.

Keeping the water taxis from sinking in Jacksonville has been a chore for the Mayor's Office. The hasty deal of buying two boats for $340,000 sunk when the council balked at the idea.

The head of Beaver Street Fisheries, Harry Frish, stepped in and said he would buy the boats and lease them to the city.

"He is in the process of buying those taxis, and the owner of those taxis is returning the money to the city," said Karen Bowling, chief administrative officer. "So we are working through that process now and expecting that will occur in the next few days."

The deal is not that simple, and lawyers are working through the red tape. The city does not really want to be in the water taxi business, and Frish is only doing this as a favor and plans to eventually sell the boats to another company that would run service for the city.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg is helping to broker that deal for Frish.

"He asked me to engage in the process to see if we could work out, untangle all of this stuff," Schellenberg said. "I think the city has been pretty responsive. Other than sending the letter, they have been accommodating to see the process work its way through. And I think this is all good."

Schellenberg said it could take some time before all the money comes back to Jacksonville. The second boat still has not be delivered and so far there have been no inspections.

The city will hire a temporary operator to handle the taxi until a permanent company can be found.

So will there be service before the Fourth of July?

"I tell you, fingers crossed, we sure are working towards that," Bowling said. "We really want that as a goal. I am really hesitant to say, but we are working really hard to make that happen. ... I can't imagine it would be longer than a few weeks."

As for the Fourth of July and Southbank Riverwalk construction, Friendship Fountain will be accessible for fireworks viewing. All construction areas have been fenced off, and equipment will be moved to not impede the view from the Crown Plaza Jacksonville-Riverfront.

The project remains within budget and is on schedule for completion in February.

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