CORONA DEL MAR— Members of the Newport Beach Water Taxi Ad Hoc Committee addressed a pair of potential roadblocks en route to implementation of the proposed venture during an April 17 meeting.
The committee, which was formed earlier this year at the request of Newport Beach Mayor Rush Hill, outlined the mounting concerns associated with Coast Guard requirements for water taxi vessels and taxi-based operational applications. ommittee Chairman Doug West said the Coast Guard regulations remain a forefront issue.
“There was a strong view that any vessels doing feasible work would need to be at least 25 feet in length,” West said. “Vessels need to be capable of at least a six-pack charter.”
Marshall “Duffy” Duffield, creator of Duffy electric boats, provided a report on the general Coast Guard requirements and criteria. Offering an overview of prior communication with a Coast Guard in Long Beach, Duffield expressed apprehension to the Coast Guard’s rigid criteria.
“I will tell you there is no way for a layman to understand what it is they actually need because the application is extremely difficult.” Duffield said. “They are an extremely complicated division of our marine world.”
He said he contacted several builders of taxi-sized vessels, and they all recommended getting an experienced engineer to work in conjunction with the Coast Guard. According to Duffield, if there are more than 12 passengers on a water taxi, operators must comply with an entirely different and more strenuous set of rules. Such hulls, whether new or used, require a timeframe of six months to receive approval from the Coast Guard.
“This is not something that can happen in June,” he said.
In Avalon, where taxi boats were constructed by custom-boat builder Westerly Marine, Duffield said owner Steve Lee informed him of a stability requirement of 200 pounds per person capacity. He said a boat of this magnitude, according to Lee, could run as much as $200,000, with additional fees nearly doubling the amount. Each boat would have to be individually certified.
“Every application is going to be looked at differently because voyage is different in length and time and open water, smooth water,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what they can encounter, but it has to be done individually.”
West questioned if there was a way to transport already-certified boats from a reasonable distance, such as San Diego or Newport Beach, without extensive recertification.
“If it fits six people or less, no problem,” Duffield said. “If you want more [people on board] than that the answer is no. It takes six months minimum.”
The committee, led by West who said “We’re over our heads here technically,” unanimously agreed to invite a member of the Coast Guard to the next meeting to answer questions in greater detail.
Commissioner Joe Stapleton, leading a report on the viability of operational models such as Uber and Lyft (LIFT), said he attempted to contact both companies.
“I reached out to a couple of contacts I have at Uber and unsuccessfully reached out to Lyft,” Stapleton said. Uber recently opened its market to the waters, unveiling an operation called UberBOAT in destinations such as Venice and Sydney. As with the system in Australia, passengers download the Uber app onto their smart phone, request the UberBOAT option, and, if there is an empty boat nearby, a water taxi will pick up from any public or private dock within Sydney Harbour.
Stapleton said. “What Uber has expressed to me is an on-call style system. So they’re interested in the idea of us calling someone, coming to get us and dropping us off. That fits their mission.”
He stressed that Uber provides the technology, but they don’t own the vehicle. They are simply a network of drivers, where no money is exchanged between the passenger and the driver. All payment is made through the app, which later compensates the driver.
One of the roughly 25 attendees referred to the company as “a booking service like hotel.com,” as the commission admitted an infrastructure still needs to be created.
For such an operation to work, the person operating the boat would have to be a Coast Guard certified captain and the vessel would need to pass inspection. Stapleton said he will contact an engineer at Uber to develop a plan for payment and will be teaming with Rudy Walberta, the vice president of marketing development for Newport Beach and Company, to create a simple app for on-call or shuttle service which would allow Newport Beach to keep the venture “in house.”
Walberta, who was in attendance, said her company is looking forward to promoting the water taxi system through a spectrum of advertising outlets. She said she will be developing ways to involve adjacent restaurants into the success of a pilot program.
A meaningful pilot cannot be one single boat riding around looking for interest, West said. He added that there needs to be enough critical mass for whatever services are being offered to really simulate the demand.
West called the potential water taxis operation “seasonal at best,” and said the committee needs to delve deeper into the competition factors regarding existing businesses at the next meeting. Plans include inviting someone from the business district to the gathering, as well as developing a report for those operating businesses within the harbor.
The committee has tentatively schedule its next meeting for Tuesday, May 6 at 4:30 p.m. at a location yet to be determined.