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Cruising one of the dozens of canals that snake past multimillion-dollar homes in America's Venice last week, Steve Pollock sipped a rum runner and scanned the deck of the small green-and-yellow boat in which he rode. A tan young mother from Chicago was drinking a beer and chiding her kids. A family from Düsseldorf was returning to the hotel from the beach. Others from Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and London were just chilling out as a tour guide described Wayne Huizenga's estate, Evel Knievel's yacht, Mayor Jim Naugle's style of dress, Kate Smith's demise, and assorted other South Florida weirdness.
"I'm just killing time before my flight back to L.A.," said Pollack, a freelance photographer in a flowered shirt. "This is the perfect thing for a tourist."
This is Water Bus, Fort Lauderdale's five-month-old, federally subsidized answer to road congestion, pollution, and commuting problems. With millions of your tax dollars, company owner Bob Bekoff has built a booming business that is unfairly squeezing longtime tour operators from the river and, it appears, violating at least one city code.
Until last year, Bekoff was competing with a half-dozen or so other boat owners to attract tourists who wanted to tool around the city's 168 miles of navigable waterways. A politically connected and well-heeled old salt, he had started a ferry service back in 1988 that plied waters all across South Florida. Bekoff's fleet, which he termed Water Taxi, was from the start different from other seaborne tourist traps. Modest, with no bar or bathroom, the vessels stopped in more places than the competition. By just a few years ago, he had acquired 17 boats, far more than the others, and was carrying 300,000 passengers per year.
Bekoff, who lives in a $400,000 Plantation home, wasn't satisfied. So he began looking for federal help. He found it, first in a $2 million grant that Broward County tapped to buy new boats, which Bekoff will build and operate. Indeed, the captain stands to make a pretty profit on construction of the unique craft, which run on electricity, diesel fuel, and -- no kidding -- vegetable oil.
With Broward County's backing, Bekoff also won a $1.5 million federal operating subsidy for 2001 that will likely repeat for the next two years. Then there was $150,000 in help from the State of Florida for advertising. "By the end of the three years we hope we can make it self-sufficient out of the fare box," Bekoff told the Sun-Sentinel in August 2001.
Service started this past November. So far, three new boats are on the water. Eventually there will be ten (eight owned by the county) to augment the fleet -- rechristened Water Bus. The new service charges $5 for an all-day ticket, far less than the $16 Bekoff required before going on the dole. It includes 18 regular stops from Oakland Park Boulevard to Port Everglades and the New River, and hooks up to the bus system in at least five places.
The idea, according to Lorraine Smith, assistant director of Broward County Transit, is to provide alternatives and make commuting easier. "We have a schedule in the morning where it is quicker to take a water taxi than it is to take your car," she explains. "With all the construction going on downtown, we have tried to give people the ability to go by bus or by water."
Bekoff points out that more than 14,500 people who work along the beach could be users of his service. "The name of my game is to move people and to move them well," he says. "Obviously, commuters are part of the whole thing."
So last week, after preparing my federal tax return, I set out to climb aboard Bekoff's bonanza. First, on Wednesday, I called the Water Bus office and asked about the early morning commuter service Smith had mentioned. An operator put me on hold for a minute, then returned to the line. "It's done for the season," he said.
"Is there a season for commuters?" I responded. "I thought we South Floridians work year 'round."
"You'll have to talk to my boss," he said. (Bekoff acknowledges the commuter service has been cancelled but says it may start up again in a couple months on a new route that will be accessible to downtown construction workers.)
So I logged onto the Water Bus Website (www.watertaxi.com), and learned that the boats stopped not far from the New Times office on the New River more or less once an hour on weekdays, every half hour on weekends. So more people commute on weekends? I thought. Hmm. At 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, around the time traffic gets heavy, I headed to the water.
At a dock in front of the River House in Himmarshee, there were no schedules and no passengers waiting. About 4:30, a small boat showed up. A guy whose name tag read Captain Scott castigated the audience over a PA system for being sullen: "Have some fun, you're supposed to be on vacation," he said. "After all, this is Fort Liquordale."
Over the next hour and a half, 51 people boarded the boat as it made its way down the New River, onto the Intracoastal Waterway, then back. Though it was rush hour, not one of them was commuting. Most liked Bekoff's service, but didn't like the idea that federal tax dollars were supporting the endeavor, even though they were benefiting.