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Proposed water taxi service attracts no formal proposals

ANNA MARIA – Water taxi operators aren’t expressing interest in operating a water taxi service between downtown Bradenton and Anna Maria Island.

Wednesday, March 30 was the deadline to submit a proposal to the Manatee County Procurement Division in response to the invitation to negotiate (ITN). No proposals were received.

Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Elliott Falcione is among the staff members Manatee County Administrator Dr. Scott Hopes tasked with bringing a long-anticipated water taxi system to the county.

“As of yesterday, at the end of the day, the Manatee County procurement office did not receive a proposal,” Falcione said. “So, how are they handling it from this point moving forward? They’ve sent an email request to the vendors we previously sent the invitation to negotiate to. We hope to see where we can improve the solicitation process using any feedback they may have. That process has begun.”

“We’re still optimistic that we’re going to pursue a water taxi operation. We have to pursue this for the greater good of enhancing multi-modal transportation in our community. We’re going to interact with vendors who have done charters or similar types of businesses in our community to see what they need to move this thing forward,” he said.

“I don’t look at this as a negative. It’s part of a process and we’re going to do our best to make this happen. The Tourist Development Council embraces this, the board of county commissioners wants to move this forward and we know the municipalities in the county want enhanced multi-modal transportation. This is the best, first step we can take as part of that process,” Falcione said.

The opportunity to submit a proposal ended last Wednesday and has not been extended.

“That process is closed,” Falcione said. “Based on the feedback we receive, we’ll come up with plan B. The procurement office is looking at the law to see if now that we’ve gone out to solicitation with no bids do we have the opportunity to negotiate with vendors who have interest? We want to keep this moving forward. I’m sure I’ll know a lot more next week as to what we can and can’t do, but I know we’re going after feedback from the vendors we know who received the invitation to bid.”

The Sun asked Falcione if he was surprised that no proposals were submitted.

“This is new to me, so I can’t say whether I’m surprised or not. I’m a positive kind of guy and I’m not going to look at this as a negative. We’ve just got to keep on the pedal, communicate well, continue to work for the greater good and do all we can to meet the objective of getting a water taxi system going sooner than later,” he replied.

Does the lack of proposals signal concerns from the private sector about the financial feasibility of a water taxi operation between downtown Bradenton and Anna Maria Island?

“No, because the invitation to negotiate was so open-ended. It was pretty much an opportunity for them to tell us what we need to get an operation going. There weren’t any specifics related to a water taxi operation. We’ll see if we missed something as we try to get feedback from the vendors that are licensed to do what we’re asking them to do and who really know this community. We’re going to take it one step at a time,” he said.

The initial lack of proposals may suggest a water taxi system may need to be operated by Manatee County Area Transit (MCAT) as a county-funded public transportation service that is similar to the bus system.

“I think that’s an obvious option as we go through the process of finding out if this is a public/private partnership or is this a public operation? I think that could be a question at some point, but we’re still looking at this as being a public/private partnership,” he said.

Falcione invites interested people to contact Purchasing Official Jacob Erickson at 941-749-3053 or by email at jacob.erickson@mymanatee.org. Erickson is a member of the Manatee County Procurement Division.

Vendor feedback

Paradise Boat Tours General Manager Sherman Baldwin was among the tour boat operators Erickson spoke with on Thursday.

Paradise Boat Tours operates in a small terminal subleased from the city of Bradenton Beach and uses the public day dock next to the Bradenton Beach Pier to load and unload passengers.

Baldwin previously served as a first officer for Hy-Line Cruises – a Massachusetts-based company that operates a high-speed ferry service with destinations that include Hyannis, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

“I worked with them on the logistics of high-speed ferry travel and I was part of the team that helped make that transportation model viable,” Baldwin said.

After moving to Florida, Baldwin was part of a group that contemplated operating a high-speed ferry service between Sarasota, Bradenton Beach and downtown Bradenton. Those plans were never fully pursued due to a number of contributing factors, including delays with the Bradenton Beach dock replacement project, red tide and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The invitation to negotiate did not accurately reflect the challenges an operator would face in making this a viable commuter option, which is ultimately the goal for this. In my opinion, this looked like a glorified tour boat operation without solving any problems we face with our land-based transportation model that is being squeezed to the limit,” Baldwin said.

“This is a go big or go home venture. You’ve got to change the hearts and minds of people as to how they move around this region and that’s going to take time, money and investment. I talked to Jacob and said we’re talking about big dollars, but let’s not forget a single MCAT bus costs about a million dollars. We’re talking two $3 million boats that operate long hours, seven days a week, plus approximately $4 million a year in operating costs. Then you’re really talking about a program that could take some pressure off our land-based transportation system.”

Baldwin thinks a water taxi service might be even more feasible if pursued collectively by Manatee County and Sarasota County.

Anna Maria discussion

On Thursday, March 24 Falcione provided the Anna Maria City Commission and Mayor Dan Murphy with an update on the county’s efforts. He mentioned the March 30 submission deadline and said the county hoped to have a water taxi service operational by Memorial Day weekend, if possible.

“Let’s do all we can to get cars off the roads,” he said.

Falcione said the ITN process allowed the county to negotiate with multiple potential water taxi operators at the same time. He said the general nature of the process allowed interested people to develop their own plans regarding the types and number of vessels used, trip frequencies, operational hours, costs and more.

“It’s wide open,” he said. “We’re not going to lock ourselves into anything. We believe that maybe the low-hanging fruit is hop-on, hop-off, up and down the Island. When they come off the water, they hopefully either walk, bike or get on the trolley. The other part is downtown Bradenton to Anna Maria Island.”

Falcione said water taxi service between downtown Bradenton and the Island requires connectivity with the free trolley service MCAT already provides on AMI. He said he believes hospitality industry workers who work on the Island and live on the mainland will use the water taxi system if it satisfies their commuting needs.

“What is the cost associated with that? Might somebody need to subsidize a water taxi system? Manatee County knows it would probably need to be subsidized,” Falcione said.

He noted that tourism tax dollars collected from hotels, resorts, vacation rentals and other lodging accommodations cannot be used for transportation, but there may be other ways to use those tax dollars to help sustain a water taxi service.

Potential landing spots

Falcione said Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie has already expressed interest in a water taxi stop at the floating dock next to the Bradenton Beach Pier that is slated for expansion.

Proposed water taxi service produces no formal proposals
City leaders in Bradenton Beach would welcome a water taxi service on the day dock next to the Bradenton Beach Pier. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

He also said that Bradenton Mayor Gene Brown has already expressed interest in a water taxi stop at the city-owned day dock along the Riverwalk, just east of the Green Bridge. Falcione said the city of Bradenton’s dock is located near a city-owned parking garage that has plenty of space for water taxi users.

Falcione said the Anna Maria City Pier could be another potential landing area, but it would be up to the water taxi operator to initiate that request.

“I know you would have to approve an ordinance or a resolution to be able to utilize your pier for a water taxi,” he told Anna Maria commissioners.

In 2021, 3.4 million visitors came to Manatee County, including those who came for a day to visit family or friends, Falcione said, adding that 900,000 of those visitors stayed in short-term vacation rentals and 400,000 of those stayed on the Island. That equates to 1,100 rental guests per day or more than 7,600 short-term rental guests per week.

“One thousand one hundred people per day. Is that the problem? I don’t think so. What’s the problem? It’s the people coming on and off the Island for the day,” Falcione said, noting that about 60% of the people who stay in the downtown Bradenton area take a day trip to the Island.

Commission feedback

Commissioner John Crane mentioned the labor shortage on the Island and said he’d like to see subsidized ridership for those who work in the hospitality industry.

Commission Chair Carol Carter said she talked to one business owner who has 90 employees and none of them live on the Island. Carter also questioned whether beachbound “day-trippers” with families and beach gear would use a water taxi.

Commissioner Mark Short said it’s critical to get workers to and from the Island and some need to arrive early in the morning while others work well into the evening. Short said someone making $15 an hour is not going to spend $30 a day to commute by water taxi.

County or city business owners would have difficulty subsidizing the service, Falcione said.

“We’re going to lean on the proposers to see what they present to us,” he said. “I’m sure the county administrator is figuring out options and I think it’s important to interact with the corporate community and the hospitality industry.”

Proposed water taxi service produces no formal proposals
The Anna Maria City Pier has a landing area that could accommodate water taxis. – Joe Hendricks | Sun

Most water taxis would be 35 feet or larger, he said. Murphy noted the city pier already features a landing area near its T-end. He said the water there is 12 feet deep and the pier can accommodate vessels up to 75 feet long.

Murphy said he hopes that the water taxi service providers focus first and foremost on transporting the Island’s workforce.

Related coverage


Water taxi dock space problematic in Holmes Beach


County pursuing water taxi service to AMI

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