Each year during season, as traffic congestion and commuting times continue to grow, so does the urgency of addressing traffic as the number one issue within the region. My current position as the City of Sarasota’s Urban Design Studio Director involves working closely with residents, development professionals, the business community and representatives from other diverse groups interested in the livability, prosperity and sustainability of the city's neighborhoods and quality of life. A large part of these conversations involve growth and our transportation network. Inevitably as part of the exchange of ideas, someone will ask me if we have considered a water taxi as an option to our automobile-dominated infrastructure. It is a question and a topic that I am happy to discuss, as it has been an initiative I have worked on for over 15 years. I originally began working on this mode of transportation while I was the city’s redevelopment specialist. As part of my work, I was tasked with implementation of the Downtown Master Plan and coordination of the city’s large projects such as Whole Foods, the Ritz-Carlton and master plans for many of our colleges, arts and cultural venues with waterfront access.

In those early years, I delivered many presentations to business professionals, civic and neighborhood groups and associations on the potential option of a water taxi. Throughout this process, there was overwhelming support from both the community and the elected officials to explore this option. Based upon this feedback, I expanded my research to include a detailed study of other cities and their success and failures with this form of transportation. I found cities that started a small targeted system in areas with high visitor counts were the most successful in growing a system that evolved to serve commuters. A large part of the success involved placing the terminals in areas with the opportunity to connect with other transportation choices such as trolleys, buses or regular taxi services. 

The next phase of my work was to ensure that the ongoing master plans for Mote Marine, the Cultural District, University of South Florida and New College included potential stops for a future system. This work then expanded to coordinate with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to explore potential funding sources. At that time there were grants available through the Federal Ferry Discretionary Funding sources. As part of the coordination with FDOT we brought the operator of the successful Ft. Lauderdale system to the city, explored our potential stops and received his advice. He felt that if we started with targeting a small loop that ran along City Island, the Cultural District, St. Armands and Mote Marine, then we would have a viable system that would work for an operator.

Because funding for this type of initiative requires that the money be issued through our Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), I worked on behalf of the city with FDOT and MPO Staff who then funded a detailed feasibility study that was completed in 2005. A few of the recommendations included the completion of a more detailed operations and implementation plan for a pilot project including ridership estimates, fares and more detailed operating costs, preparing a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and establishing performance measures that focused on patronage (passengers per revenue hour) and operating subsidy (percentage of operating costs). The study found that while the water taxi would initially compete for other types of funding, in the long-term it might be an effective way to attract new untapped funds. Prior to my leaving the city in 2006, I wrote and processed a water taxi ordinance that was adopted to regulate private service within the city while we began the next steps for the public service component. Unfortunately, as with a number of items, the initiative was a victim of the recession. This was followed by turnover on the MPO Board resulting in a loss of continuity and momentum. The good news is that now more than ever the city is prepared to build upon this previous work to strive toward a viable system as part of its multimodal planning initiatives. The administration requested and was granted funding from the City Commission for a detailed transit study for the next phase.

For my part, I have shared my institutional experiences and regional planning projects on various systems. This past summer, the UDS staff took time from their work on the Form-Based Code to participate in a Transit Summit to help advance this and other initiatives to the current sitting commission for updates and action strategies for consideration. So while our visitors are here this season and frustrations rise at the traffic congestion or delays on the bridge, I hope you can take a moment to gaze out onto our beautiful bayfront and know that the city is working to bring a pleasant and viable alternative to fruition as part of its transportation planning.

Karin Murphy, AICP, CNU-A, is a professional planner who has worked on both the private and public sector, including experience in Form-Based Code drafting and implementation.