Water taxis could face obstacles on Newport's harbor

The Newport Beach harbor has long attracted residents and visitors alike.

Beyond the allure of the water itself, ample opportunity for entertainment can be found along its shores. There is the Balboa Fun Zone with its iconic Ferris wheel, and a number of restaurants with fresh seafood dishes. Commercial businesses thrive, yacht clubs keep busy and bars fill with patrons.

What could be missing?

The city needs water taxis to connect the dots, maybe even electric ones, at least according to Mayor Rush Hill, who hopes soon to bring the idea to fruition.

The Newport Beach City Council will vote Tuesday whether to direct the Harbor Commission to form an ad-hoc committee to consider a pilot program that would test the idea of such a service in the harbor.

The commission would review the committee's finding and make a recommendation to the council accordingly. Up for determination are details like how many boats would be needed, whether electric boats would be preferred and whether they would run on a fixed loop or on demand.

"It's not going to be an easy subject, I don't think," said the city Harbor Resources Manager, Chris Miller. "It's going to take some time because it's a pretty big subject, and there's a lot involved."


Success and failure

Hill's idea is not a new one. Water taxis have found success in other cities, both in California and worldwide.

The WaterBus, a pontoon boat in Marina del Rey, circulates among eight stops on the weekends from late June through Sept 1. Long Beach's 68-foot AquaLink and 40-foot AquaBus ferry passengers among four and five locations, respectively, beginning in the early summer.

In Santa Barbara, a bright yellow boat called the Lil Toot carries people to and fro, in addition to offering daytime cruises.

Water taxis have also launched in Newport waters before.

Ralph Rodheim, who runs Balboa Boat Rentals, started the Harbor Hopper water taxi service in the summer of 1994, but the concept lasted only one season.

"We determined at that time there is a demand," he said. "It can work on a seasonal basis, but it definitely needed to be subsidized. It just wasn't economically feasible."

The start-up fees for the boats, slips and insurance paled in comparison with fares of just a few dollars, said Rodheim, who had recently returned from Sidney, Australia, where he said water taxis abounded.

Only the Balboa Island Ferry withstood the test of time in Newport, with boats carrying passengers, and more recently their cars too, back and forth from a point on Balboa Island to a point about 800 feet away on Balboa Peninsula since 1919.


The right time?

The council stalled plans in 2010 to test a water taxi service in 2011, rejecting a request for $12,500 from a Summer Water Taxi Exploratory Committee to conduct a public survey.

"I think someday it'll probably come. I think for now it's probably stalled," the committee's chairman, Michael McNamara, said at the time.

New factors now make water taxis feasible, Hill believes.

He has proposed a change in the mooring system from cans to floating docks. Council members will also vote Tuesday on whether to direct the Harbor Commission to form an ad-hoc committee to study this idea independently.

Water taxis would carry boat owners from shore to their vessels in a hassle-free way.

With 11 public docks currently, according to Miller, a few more docks may be added before the end of the year, further increasing the possibility for transportation through the harbor.

The concept finds support from Newport Beach and Company, which markets the city, though the group said it was too early to say whether they would help to fund it.

Meanwhile, Hill hopes the taxis can tap into new technology, like seen in on-demand car services like Uber or Lyft.

"I am very excited and encouraged by the opportunity at this point, mostly because of the technology," said Harbor Commissioner Paul Blank.

With a water taxi app, landlubbers could find themselves soon ditching their cars for boats with just the push of a button.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World