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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.
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."