Happy Tax Day!

Now that you've paid up, take a look at who's raking in your cash

"It doesn't quite make sense," said Duane Huisken, an advertising executive from Tustin, California.

"Most of the people here look like they're on vacation," said Jane Greenamayor of Wilmington, Delaware, who was traveling with her husband Rich and three kids. "It's wrong."

A whopping two of the 51 people were locals. And only Vicki Mowrey, a grandmother traveling with her kids and grandkids, had ever used it to travel to work. That was three months ago. "If you think they aren't taking commuters, you're probably right," she said.

The last half hour of the ride was a narrated tour. Over a loudspeaker, a guy at the front of the boat described the amazing homes, Florida's smallest state park, and a lot of residences that belong to people who probably don't need the water taxi because they own their own yacht.

Now, Water Bus is not supposed to be a tour boat. "It's transportation," Bekoff insists. Indeed, passengers don't have to pay sales tax as they would on a tour boat. And city law precludes Bekoff's boats from "at any time [using] loudspeakers or any device to amplify sound with the exception of an internal intercom system."

Other tour operators complain, with some justification, that the federal government is screwing them by backing Bekoff, who's doubled the number of passengers on board his boats to 130,000 in the five months since he lowered his price.

"I don't like the idea that the federal government is subsidizing his boat and not mine," says Jerry Faber, president and owner of the city's most venerable tour boat service, the Jungle Queen. Faber's business has dropped off 15 percent since Water Bus began operating.

Business has been even more severely affected at the Riverfront Cruises I, where former owner Jerry Gertz was recently brought back as a consultant. That boat charges $14 for a tour. "It's absolutely deadly for us," Gertz comments. "You can't compete against $5. I would have no problem with this if were strictly transportation, but when was the last time you had a narrated tour on a Broward Boulevard bus?"

Perhaps the most serious charge is leveled by a ferry-boat consultant named Robert Ward, who recently obtained a water taxi license to compete with Bekoff. Ward, who has three boats and spent $150,000 maintaining them over the past two years, contends that Bekoff -- a regular political contributor -- manipulated Fort Lauderdale city officials into blocking Ward's operation from using city docks. "What the city and federal government are doing is putting up roadblocks to stop competition," Ward complains. "I don't think this is fair and I don't think the taxpayer knows about it."

Bekoff contends the loudspeakers on board are really part of an intercom. And, he says, 95 percent of his passengers disembark at least once before returning to their starting point. Thus it's not a tour, but rather transportation. And, because it's not a tour, he deserves the federal and state largesse as well as the state sales-tax break. Moreover, he didn't block Ward. He didn't even know the man before the license was granted, he says. "People are coming and going in droves -- that is not a tour," he sums up. "And if our crew is friendly and informative, that's great."

Quite simply, Bob, that's bilgewater. While federal subsidies for alternative transportation might be a good idea, the money for Water Bus is nothing more than pork to a loyal contributor to Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw, a recipient of Bekoff's political contributions (including $2000 to a recent campaign). Shaw's name is even on the boat pictured on Bekoff's Website. The boats aren't reducing traffic, nor are they aiding the many locals who need buses, trains or other transportation to get to work.

Authorities should stop wasting tax dollars on this watery mess and contribute to more conventional transportation -- the kind with wheels. As Steve Pollock, the Los Angeles photographer who was quaffing the rum runner last week, put it: "If my tax dollars are paying for this, I'm not happy."

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