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Newport council explores water taxi pilot project

Before Newport Beach decides whether to go through with a water taxi pilot project, a Harbor Commission subcommittee suggested that it consider its neighbor to the north.

The Marina del Rey WaterBus system would be the most feasible for Newport Beach to mimic, the subcommittee suggested to the City Council during a study session Tuesday.

Newport's harbor may be larger than that of Marina del Rey, and the population less dense, but a scheduled loop route and subsidized service like that in the Los Angeles marina seems to make the most sense for the Orange County city, commissioners said.

By the commissioners' estimation, at least four boats would be necessary in a pilot phase in Newport, with two boats traveling in each direction around a 90-minute circuit. That way, there would be a 45-minute lapse between boats going either way.

The vessels would operate like municipal buses, scheduled rather than like the "on-demand" service popular with ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft — an option suggested by Mayor Rush Hill when he first asked the commission to look into the idea earlier this year. The 5 mph speed limit makes an on-demand system challenging and impractical for a first try, Commissioner Doug West explained.

However, he added that "flag stops" could be considered. They would allow users on a dock to wave down a boat for pickup, even if it wasn't a designated spot.

A smartphone application could also be developed to track the boats in live time, Commissioner Joe Stapleton said.

Still, the project would come at a cost.

A Marina del Rey-style boat would cost about $150,000 for a capacity of 20 to 30 passengers, plus strollers and bikes, Harbor Commissioner Doug West told the council.

"It's not the most elegant boat that I've ever seen, but it's very functional for the purpose in which they're using it," he said.

The vessels might feature paid advertising or draw contributions from harbor area businesses, such as the many restaurants that would see a benefit from the added traffic, commissioners said.

Staffing would cost $35 per hour for a captain and $20 to $25 per hour for a deckhand, West said. Financing would also be needed to reconfigure some public docks, as well as to cover proper signage and marketing.

"We're virtually certain that waterbus service could not break even on its fares," West said.

Marina del Rey WaterBus charges a $1 one-way fare, offers a $30 season pass and receives more than $400,000 in subsidies from Los Angeles County, West said.

Though several council members recognized the potential of water buses to improve the city, they hesitated over the costs.

As Councilwoman Nancy Gardner suggested, why not a tram?

Moving forward, city staff plans to gather more information about parking concerns, start-up costs, subsidy opportunities and possible operators.

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