A small yellow-and-white ferry boat skims Biscayne Bay’s glassy surface. The words “Water Taxi Xpress” are stamped in big black block letters on its starboard and port sides, along with a phone number and the website to Water Taxi Miami.
Capt. Robert Perez cruises past the vacant site where the Miami Herald headquarters once stood. Saltwater spritzes the passengers, including Otto and Helga Hoffmann, who boarded the watercraft at the Bayside Marketplace marina, officially known as Miamarina.
The German couple, on the second day of their weeklong mid-April vacation, sit under a canopy that shields them from the morning sun. They’ve paid $60 for two round-trip tickets from Bayside to South Beach.
“Tomorrow we leave for Key West and then the day after to Sanibel,” says Helga, a petite brunette wearing a baseball cap and thick oval sunglasses. “So today, we wanted to go to Miami Beach by boat.”
A burly Cuban-American with a thin mustache and cropped black hair, Perez slowly guides the boat under the Venetian Causeway drawbridge and into the fueling bay for the Sea Isle Marina behind the Venetia and Grand condominiums. While gassing up, three more passengers come aboard, each paying for a one-way $15 ride to their sailboat anchored in the bay near Hibiscus Island.
The ride to Miami Beach Marina at 300 Alton Rd. takes about 20 minutes. When the Hoffmanns disembark, Perez suggests the couple grab lunch at Joe’s Take Away, the upscale deli and market adjacent to venerable Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant. “We want to be in Miami Beach for a couple of hours,” Otto says. “When should we come back to the marina?”
“Two-forty-five,” Perez replies. “But you have my cell number if you want to call ahead in case you don’t see the boat when you get back. Don’t worry, we won’t leave you behind.”
For the past year and a half, the U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captain has been working part time for Water Taxi Miami, currently the only boat company offering water-based public transit service between downtown marinas in Miami and South Beach. “We mostly get tourists,” says Perez. “It’s not really a practical way of getting to work.”
At least not yet, but Water Taxi Miami owner and operator Max Vlessing is convinced that one day he’ll be able to compete with the Miami-Dade Transit buses that chug along the MacArthur Causeway for daily commuters.
“We believe there’s a future in water taxis,” says the 51-year-old Dutchman. “We’re still trying to make it happen. We just need more ridership and stops.”
In a city that’s home to 6743 boat owners, two of the largest cruise lines in the world, and one of the busiest cargo ports, the fact that more water taxi entrepreneurs like Vlessing haven’t moored their floating cabs in Miami is a startling revelation.
Yet the reasons are simple. The high cost of boat maintenance and fuel, a lack of affordable boat slips, and expenses related to obtaining regulatory approvals make the water taxi business hard to crack, Vlessing says. “I have to get permission to operate from the maritime boards in Miami and Miami Beach,” he adds. “You need to have Coast Guard-inspected vessels, and your captains need specific licenses. It’s not easy.”
According to old Miami Herald clips, efforts to launch an effective water-based public transit services have been around since the late 1970s, when Leonard Haber, who was then mayor of Miami Beach, lobbied for a $2 million federal grant to fund an Amsterdam-style water taxi system along the Indian Creek waterway.
The plan fizzled after critics pointed out that the service would largely benefit condo dwellers and guests staying at hotels from 23rd to 63rd streets, but would leave out most of the city’s estimated 50,000 elderly poor living below 17th Street, who at the time accounted for 20 percent of the county’s public bus ridership.
In 1983, Coconut Grove businessman Stuart Sorg was unsuccessful in persuading Miami, Miami Beach, and county elected officials to back his plan to buy two hydrofoil boats for $300,000 that would be used for a water taxi service, with an estimated annual operating cost of $124,000.
Irene S. Hegedus, Miami-Dade’s chief of transportation enhancements, tells the BT that in the early 2000s, engineering firm Kimley Horn studied the possibility of a water taxi commuter service that led to a request for proposals in 2006. Three companies responded, but the effort died before it could gain traction “because there were too many obstacles,” she says.
“The vessels were too large for Miami’s unique waterways and crummy infrastructure,” she explains. “And we didn’t have the kind of density we have today.”
While water taxi ambitions sputtered in Miami-Dade, they thrived in Broward County. In 1989, a private operator in Fort Lauderdale launched a taxi service on the Intracoastal Waterway that has become one of the city’s more popular modes of public transportation. Water Taxi Fort Lauderdale also expanded into Hollywood. A majority of the stops are at waterfront restaurants and hotels.
Vlessing entered the water taxi scene in 2012, about a year after arriving in Miami. Originally from Amsterdam, which practically invented water taxis, Vlessing says he was staying in a condo near Bayside when the idea to start his own service sprang to life.
“I saw all those cruise ships and sightseeing tour boats and wondered if there were any water taxis operating in the city,” he recalls. “I did my due diligence and there were none.”
In addition to the small ferry boat, Vlessing’s fleet includes two pontoon boats that can carry more than a dozen passengers. He operates three routes between Miami and Miami Beach that originate at Bayside, with the first trip of the day beginning between 10:45 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 11:00 a.m. Monday through Fridays. The last trip sails at 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and 7:30 p.m. on weekends.
His boats make only one publicly owned stop: the Purdy Avenue dock in Miami Beach. All the other stops are at privately operated marinas.
While Vlessing believes in expanding water taxi commuter service to coastal cities as far north as Aventura, he says the economics make it unfeasible. He notes that Water Taxi Miami sells an annual pass for $290, which breaks down to 80 cents a day per trip.
And the demand isn’t there. For one, his hours of operation make it hard for anyone to use the service if they go to work before 11:00 a.m. or leave after 6:00 p.m.
“If we can get more local people to ride the water taxi, then we can offer it as a commuter service starting at 6:00 a.m.,” he says. “But most of our business are tourists. These people aren’t buying a yearly pass.”
Hegedus says the county is interested in developing a commuter-oriented water taxi or water bus service. “But we have some limitations,” she says. “We have manatees and seagrass protection zones, and a lot of infrastructure, such as low bridges. Clearance is very important.”
Hegedus says if a boat is too large, then it would have to be rerouted. She also notes that Biscayne Bay is a very shallow basin, which affects the propulsion systems that boats use.
“Having said that, all the municipalities along the water are interested in water taxis,” she says. “We started determining where the on-demand [sites could go].”
Interest in creating a commuter water taxi service received a boost during the recent Miami International Boat Show. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, or NMMA, the company that puts on the five-day event, hired several charter vessels to ferry boat lovers to Virginia Key, where the show was held. Following the boat show, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado told local news outlets that the boat show water taxis “started the conversation” around a public water transit system and hailed the idea as a “no brainer” alternative to Miami’s clogged roads.
Ben Wold, NMMA executive vice-president, says the boat show water taxis moved 53,000 people from four different marinas to Virginia Key over the five days. The NMMA used 24 boats to transport showgoers. “They loved the experience,” Wold says. “And it helped us keep people off the causeways.”
Of course, the association had large vessels at its disposal. Two boats each had capacity for more than 300 people, five that could hold 250 passengers each, and the rest had capacity for 150 people each. “Boats were brought in from Fort Lauderdale and other areas,” Wold says. “For the most part, the runs took 25 to 30 minutes. People just loved it.”
A native of Chicago, where water taxis are common on the city’s river, Wold says there is no reason it can’t be a viable, affordable public transit alternative in Miami. “We’re hopeful water taxis will get a foothold here,” he says. “The city and county realize they need to take congestion off the roadways. Water taxis are staring us in the face. It’s a natural.”