The city is paying more than $100,000 in hopes of eventually establishing a water-based transportation service to and from the barrier islands.
Sarasota’s city planning staff is eager to explore uncharted waters, both literal and figurative.
On April 15, the City Commission voted 3-2 to authorize spending $108,500 for a water taxi feasibility study. The study will focus on the technical aspects of creating a new transportation service connecting the mainland to the barrier islands across Sarasota Bay. Staff hopes the project could eventually lead to the creation of a long-discussed service that can shuttle people across the water.
The proposal received support from a majority of the commission, who thought the study would help further the city’s ongoing goal of making it easier to get around without cars.
“I think this is what we need to do in terms of being deliberate about making some of these multimodal transportation things happen,” Mayor Liz Alpert said.
Two commissioners voted against the expenditure. Commissioner Hagen Brody said he didn’t think the city should be investing resources to the study, suggesting private enterprise could determine whether a water taxi service in the city is feasible. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie was discouraged to see the city only received one bid for the work, hoping a more competitive process might lead to a less expensive project.
“I’m not convinced we can’t get it for a better price,” Freeland Eddie said.
After receiving the commission’s approval, the city will work with St. Petersburg-based Foster Consulting on the study. Already, the city has identified a series of potential docking points for the water taxis to travel between. The challenge, Planning Director Steve Cover said, is determining whether the waterways are navigable and appropriate for such a service.
“Obviously, St. Armands would be a prime location for a drop-off,” Cover said. “But we don’t know the depth of the water; we don’t know if there are important seagrasses underneath, if there are other environmental issues we need to know about.”
Cover believes the study is necessary to lay the groundwork for a viable water transit service in the near future. He believes both residents and tourists would be interested in getting to and from the barrier islands without having to go over the John Ringling Causeway.
The city is undertaking a transportation master plan, set for completion in 2020, that will include a comprehensive analysis of the city’s transportation network. Cover sees a water taxi service as a key piece of that puzzle, one that works in harmony with other transit operations that may be established in the future, such as a trolley or a shuttle that can take residents from the bayfront to downtown.
“It’s all going to be interconnected so there are no gaps in our transportation system,” Cover said.
Brody said he was skeptical about the prospect of establishing a water taxi route because the city has been discussing such a service for more than a decade with no service actually launching.
In 2017, the city approved an agreement with TevaTan LLC Co. to operate a ferry route from Bradenton Beach to the bayfront in downtown Sarasota.
General Manager Sherman Baldwin said he’s still working to get that ferry service started, waiting on construction of a dock in Bradenton Beach. Baldwin said he declined to participate in the feasibility study because it is not analyzing the economics of a transit operation, but he was interested in seeing the technical report when it’s finished and would consider a water taxi service in the Sarasota area.
Baldwin thought a successful service would rely on customers regularly using the boats as point-to-point trips as opposed to people who enjoy cruises that already operate in the bay.
“If we found a financial model that would work for this, it would be based upon people using it as transportation, not for sightseeing,” Baldwin said.
Cover said a water taxi service wouldn’t have to eliminate gridlock on the barrier islands to be a worthwhile contribution to the city’s transportation network. As the city embarks upon the technical study, he expressed optimism the work would eventually pay dividends.
“Is it the cure all to all of our transportation woes?” Cover said. “No, but it certainly would help.”