River taxi deal sparks debate on spending priorities

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An eleventh hour deal saved the city's iconic river taxi service. But the deal is raising questions both inside and outside City Hall.

After learning in late May that the river taxi vendor would cease operations Friday, the city scrambled to find a way to keep it going. A marathon meeting Thursday produced a solution: The city will purchase two pontoon boats at a cost of $332,000 and find someone to operate them. Karen Bowling, the city's chief administrative officer, said the deal will keep the water taxi in operation tomorrow and in the months to come.

Related: Water Taxi service solution

"We looked for a short term solution," she said. "This will buy us some time to figure out a longer term solution."

The city has the money, Bowling said, though it was not clear late Friday what the source was.

"I never got a clear answer where money was to come from," Jacksonville City Councilman Clay Yarborough told First Coast News. Yarborough said he was concerned about the expense given all the unmet city needs. "If we look city wide there are projects in each district that need attention." He pointed to a tennis court resurfacing project in Councilwoman Lori Boyer's district that has taken more than two years to complete, as well as drainage and road maintenance issues throughout the city.

It's a concern some taxpayer echoed. Shanell Johnson cited potholes and overgrown rights of way as more pressing problems.

"I'm not sure whether that would be actually a good decision, because maybe they could spent that money on something more important than boat. And seeing as not a lot of people actually ride the boats, it might not be a good idea," Johnson said.

Mark Fisher agreed.

"Times are hard," Fisher told First Coast News. "I just don't know if the revenue could justify the costs."

But Jon Jagodinski, a fisherman who appreciates the river's central role in downtown, thought it money well spent. "I guess in the great scheme of things, they have to do what they can to preserve the downtown waterfront, its connectivity. It's the crown jewel of what goes on here."

At the mouth of the river, another group had questions about the deal. Mark Fernandez, general manager of the St. Johns River Ferry, said he was "flabbergasted" the city would spend $330,000 on boats when it has been reluctant to fund ferry operations. "I don't want to knock the water taxi, but it's a novelty, not a necessity."

Former City Councilmember Elaine Brown, a longtime ferry booster, says it's taken an "army of people" to advocate for ferry funding. Even so, getting money to keep in in operation has been tough. "We've worked so hard, we've begged for 250,000 each year. We've been in a fight -- a war."

Mayor Alvin Brown's original 2013-14 budget contained no money for the ferry, and even after the council earmarked $450,000 funds, many were concern the mayor would veto it.

"It would have been nice if the city had jumped to the aid of the river ferry the way in jumped to the aid of the water taxi," said Tom Patton, ferry task force member. "The water taxi's a great service -- I'm really glad they were able to keep it. But this is a great service too -- and it's critical. It's far from being just amenity. This is way more than just a nice thing to do."

Certainly there is no comparison between the taxi's few dozen daily passengers and the ferry, which carries 450,000 people and 225,000 vehicles each year. But mayoral spokesperson David DeCamp called any equivalence "a false comparison," and added the mayor has supported the ferry both financially and publicly.

"He has and will continue to support river access," said DeCamp. "His record proves that."


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