Bekoff's Bounty

With a $2.3 million federal grant, Water Taxi mogul Bob Bekoff will use eight spanking-new ferries to float tourists up and down the Intracoastal
Joshua Prezant

At midmorning in early December, about 100 people waited at the central Broward County bus terminal -- a long, glorified sidewalk with wooden benches and a roof. Sitting in the middle of the sparse crowd were friends Audrey and Mary, both middle-aged and tired-looking.

Since Audrey's car broke down a month ago, Mary, today wearing a white blouse and a metal whistle around her neck, has been riding what Broward County Transit (BCT) officials affectionately call the "B." "It's terrible. It's late all the time," she says, irritation creeping into her voice. "You better leave an hour earlier than you think you need to if you need to get somewhere."

Audrey, leaning forward on the bench in her white "City of Fort Lauderdale" T-shirt, is also disgusted by the bus system. But even worse, she argues, is that the federal government will soon grace Broward County with a $2.3 million grant to expand Water Taxi, the privately owned fleet of ferryboats that plies the canals of the Venice of America. "They're catering to the people on the east side of the city," she says. "Go down on Las Olas, and you see those houses with the water behind them, with the boats docked behind them. Water Taxi caters to those people -- the rich people. And the people who live out west that really need to travel..." Her voice trails off, and she shakes her head. "[The rich] own their own boats, so why do you need a water taxi service?"

Neither Mary nor Audrey has ever taken a water taxi. And both say they rarely go near the Intracoastal.

The federal grant to expand Water Taxi, awarded in October, comes out of the Ferry Boat Discretionary Program, which is part of the Federal Highway Administration. "We can only use it for acquisitions or capital goods," Water Taxi owner Bob Bekoff explains. "We can't use it for operating dollars -- no fuel or maintenance. You must create something new."

Water Taxi is headquartered in Fort Lauderdale in a modest, two-story building on the Intracoastal near SE Sixth Street. Nearby several docked boats with signature green-and-yellow awnings rock gently with the rhythm of the water. Inside, Bekoff's office has cream-color, fake-wood paneling and the kind of industrial carpet that typically covers the floors of insurance companies and elementary school classrooms. Though his dark leather chairs suggest the furnishings in the Biltmore Estate's gentlemen's quarters, the rest of the décor showcases Bekoff's fishing prowess. On one wall is a four-foot-long blue marlin he caught "a long time ago." Under it is a footlong snake mackerel. ("A very rare fish from the South Pacific, except we caught it here," Bekoff laughs. "I guess it got confused.")

Born in Massachusetts in 1943, Bekoff spent much of his early life in Augusta, Maine. He graduated from Bates College, where he majored in economics. About 20 years ago, Bekoff moved from Baltimore to South Florida and launched a yacht dealership. Then, 12 years ago, he took over Water Taxi. By all accounts his business was not immediately profitable. But unlike other would-be moguls who tried to make money off water transit before him, he hung on and prevailed. Now it is apparently time to expand.

For the past four years, Bekoff says he and BCT have been vying for a grant from the ferryboat discretionary money. But it was not until this year, when U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R-Fort Lauderdale) contacted the appropriations committee on behalf of Broward County to garner support for the proposal, that they struck gold.

Winning a grant with a congressman's help is nothing unusual. It is, in fact, hard to get one without help from the Hill. What stands out, though, is that Bekoff and his wife, Dottie, donated a total of $2000 to Shaw's reelection campaign over the past two years -- and that the congressman's posters have been plastered on some of Bekoff's boats. Shaw's press secretary, Donna Boyer, denies there's any connection: "Honestly Mr. Shaw doesn't know who donates to him. He doesn't look over the lists, and the money just goes toward his campaign. He doesn't want to know. I'm sure he did this because Broward County had this on their priority lists and he thought it was a good idea."

Bekoff laughs off any connection. "This is hardly a political scandal," he says. "There is zero connection. I've never spoken to him about donating money. We're not buddies. We're not on a first-name basis."

According to Lorraine Smith, BCT's assistant director, the federal grant money will go toward the purchase of eight hybrid-electric boats (vessels that can run on batteries or alternative fuel). These air-conditioned ferries, each of which seats about 70 passengers, will beef up Bekoff's current fleet of 15 boats. He will lease the new ferries from the county and use them to provide more-frequent service on the Intracoastal and the New River. Nothing is yet decided, but the idea is to create seamless connections among Tri-Rail, the "B," and Water Taxi.

But there's a problem. Although Bekoff and Smith contend the ferry will alleviate Broward's increasingly congested streets, Smith admits BCT did no research on whether such service has lured people from their cars in other cities. It just seems logical, she contends, that people would choose a boat over the seasonal beach gridlock. Edward Hudgins of the Cato Institute, a libertarian public-policy think tank, says Smith is wrong. Hudgins, who has researched public transportation, says he found that in 282 metropolitan areas, including huge cities, at least 90 percent of all trips were made by car. He is skeptical that people who refuse to take trains and buses will board a boat unless A1A is so jammed that it consistently takes two hours to go ten miles. "You've got I-95," he says. "You've got the turnpike. You've got U.S. 1. You've got three major things going north-south. The notion that anyone would take the Intracoastal Waterway is crazy."

Who will use the expanded Water Taxi service, then? Bekoff argues many of the 14,000 people who work along the beach will choose his boats. With subsidies, he says, boat rides will be affordable for both tourists and the working class. "Water is a natural resource for transit that is highly underutilized," Bekoff adds. "These urban planners, they're living in the last century. When you go to less-developed countries, you see a lot more water-based transportation." Smith is, maybe, a little more realistic. She believes tourists will make up much of the traffic six months out of the year. "But it will also allow us to bring employees to and from their jobs [at hotels and restaurants]," she says.

Another problem is that most people in Broward don't work on the beach or frequent the Intracoastal. "There's no water in western Broward to get to," Bekoff comments. Perhaps some relief will come in April: Thanks to gasoline taxes, BCT's fleet will increase from 232 vehicles to 250. And with federal tax money, the county will replace 21 buses within the next two years.

Is that enough? Not for Audrey. "For what was a ten-minute drive in my car, I have to ride the bus an hour to do the same trip," she says. "And between connections I have to stand for 20 minutes on the side of the road."

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