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Best-kept secret in cash-poor Baltimore: free water taxi

The Maritime Park Harbor Connector station (Photo by Dave Dalton)

The Maritime Park Harbor Connector station in Fells Point (Photo by Dave Dalton)

by ELIZABETH SUMAN

In a city hoping to balance its strained budget with a bottled-beverage tax and fines for public drinking, spitting and urinating, there are still some fluid-related activities in Baltimore that don’t cost a thing: such as riding the water taxi.

No, not the one that charges $10. There’s another water taxi in town — the city-sponsored, largely-publicly-funded Harbor Connector, that is free and goes to some of the same places as the ten dollar one.

Puzzled? Here’s a guide to finding it (not a lot of signs!) and figuring out how – and why — the city makes this sweet, under-the-radar deal possible . . . .

The purpose of the Connector, city transportation officials say, is to offer a more direct way for commuters and others to move to-and-from some popular waterfront locations: Fells Point, Canton and Locust Point. Connector trips that take just six minutes, they note, can take up to three times as long by car.

“The point is to take cars off the road and abate congestion and pollution,” said chief of transit and marine services Barry S. Robinson, “and we’re doing that.”

Riding the little boat from Fells Point to Tide Point on a sunny spring Friday morning not long ago, I found the trip to be quick, practical and scenic – and the boat nearly empty, except for two men who ferried over to H&S Bakery in Fells Point for lunch.

Water Taxi

The Harbor Connector pulls up to the dock at Maritime Park (Photo by Dave Dalton)

The Connector’s $297,000 annual operating expenses come from a city parking tax, as well as a developer and other private donors. The service is also intended to tie in with the Charm City Circulator, the city’s free east-west bus service that goes past the Inner Harbor, connecting Hollins Market to Harbor East.

So, where exactly does the Harbor Connector go? The two tiny blue-and-white boats travel two routes. The first and most-ridden route, running between Maritime Park in Fells Point and Tide Point Pier in South Baltimore, began in May 2009. That taxi departs approximately every 20 minutes and each ride takes around six minutes. The second route, which began in November 2009, takes around ten minutes, and runs five to six times an hour, between Canton Waterfront Park and Tide Point Pier.

Harbor Connector map.

Combined, the two routes average 200 riders a day, according to deputy transportation director Jamie Kendrick. A third route in South Baltimore is tentatively scheduled to begin running in the late Spring of 2011, from Pierside Drive (Harborview) to Fells Point.

So, what’s the city getting for its money? Well, actually we’re talking mostly about the public’s money: $180,000 from the parking tax that also funds the Circulator and $27,000 from miscellaneous traffic impact fee revenue.

There’s private money, too. According to Kendrick, about $90,000 was kicked in by Hull Point LLC, which includes several waterfront employers: Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse and UnderArmour and Advertising.com. These companies operated the water taxi service privately for their employees, before the city took it over last year and opened it to the public.

Along with private and city dollars, federal funds also are keeping the free water taxi service afloat. Using $1.59 million in federal stimulus grant money, the Connector is having two brand new boats built that will allow them to expand the service. (Kendrick said an Eastern Shore boat builder was recently awarded the contract.)

Who’s on board?

It all comes down to who uses the Connector. The service caters primarily to commuters, according to Kendrick, Robinson, and Captain James Guess, who has worked for Ed Kane’s water taxi company (the $10 one) for approximately ten years, and has alternated between the paid and free services since the Fells Point route began running last spring.

Captain James Guess (Photo by Dave Dalton)

So, it has to be asked, are the users of this free city service basically affluent professionals and the occasional out-of-town tourist?

The Connector’s riders, Robinson responds, are, “representative of the [Canton and Fells Point] communities where the landings are located, even though it’s open to everyone.”

One Harbor, two taxi services

The Harbor Connector is operated, but not owned, by Ed Kane’s Water Taxis, which targets tourists more than commuters. Though the services share boats and captains, Ed’s costs $10 a ride and operates seven days a week from popular tourist hubs, such as the busiest stretch of Thames Street next to the Recreation Pier. From May 1- Sept.  6, the taxi runs until 11 p.m. most evenings.

The Harbor Connector, on the other hand, runs only until 7 p.m. on weekdays and its passenger loading docks are more isolated. The Fells Point pickup spot, for example, is nestled within the Frederick Douglass Maritime Park on the southwest end of Thames Avenue, and would be hard to find if you didn’t know it was there.

Kendrick says the distinction between “water taxi” and “Harbor Connector” are “important.” But although they serve different purposes, the only visible difference between the two types of boats is a Harbor Connector badge printed on the side of the traditional blue and white “Water Taxi” boats.

Ed Kane’s website includes a basic schedule and description of the Harbor Connector under a link called “Commuter,” without getting into how the two services are connected.

Best-kept secret

So, why, if the Connector is free, good for the environment, and faster than going by car, hasn’t it received more attention, been promoted with signs and attracted hordes of passengers?

The city hasn’t “geared up our marketing yet,” is one reason, according to Kendrick. Because the Canton boat began running in the Fall when it was cold, the most “awkward time” to ride it, the transportation department decided to hold off from heavily promoting the service until warmer weather and the most opportune time to promote . . . which they say is now.

As part of its goal to advertise, the department has developed a relationship with Charmed Magazine, a local direct mail publication that reaches “more than 65,000 affluent residents in Canton/Highlandtown/Butcher’s Hill/Brewer’s Hill; Federal Hill/Locust Point/Otterbein/Pigtown; Fells Point /Harbor East; Little Italy/Downtown; Mt. Vernon, Charles Village and at various local events,” according to its website.

City officials acknowledge the Connector may still be “Baltimore’s best-kept transportation secret” but say that they want to change this, and are overall pleased with their numbers, which are better than they expected. They anticipated that the Fells Point route would produce 75 riders a day, Kendrick said, but its average head count is 150. He said the route’s peak is 199.

By 2 p.m. the Friday I took my ride, 67 people had ridden Guess’ boat and I ran into a total of three passengers on a round-trip from Fells Point to Tide Point.

“Is it mammoth? No. Does it help mitigate the pollution and congestion? Absolutely,” said Kendrick, who believes the service has a lot of “potential.”

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  • Kate

    The ridership numbers are pretty terrible, but baltmiore’s affluent residents are still residents. Show me some numbers about transportation dollars going to affluent neighborhoods versus the rest of the city (or state, even) and this argument becomes more compelling. As it is, I’m not appalled (as the writer seems to be) that the city is spending some money to offer a service to affluent neighborhoods.

  • Dunn

    I think you hit an important point, “It is supposed to tie in with the Charm City Circulator.” But it doesn’t, the nearest CCC stop is 1/4 mile or more away. I personally think the CCC really missed the bus by not extending into the heavy populated residential areas of Fells Point and Canton, where I think it would have realized its goals of becoming a viable commuter and transportation alternative. It seems like the routes where created by people who don’t live and don’t fully understand the needs, geared more towards tourists and business.

    The Fells Point stop for free water taxi is in a little traveled corner of Fells Point with a fairly low residential density. It misses the boat by shutting off service early, so that residents of Locust Point and Fells Point can use it to connect after work hours, which would probably get more use.

    I like the ideas of both the water taxi and CCC, but in practical application they fall short of their potential. But with some route re-tooling I think they could be great.

  • http://www.BaltimoreInnerSpace.blogspot.com Gerald Neily

    Ed Kane’s service has a “frequent floater” fare of $100 for the entire year. Use it once a month and it’s cheaper than the day rate – perfect for commuters. Ed Kane’s service has every incentive to keep the free service a secret. The City has now been subsidizing this thing for over a year and still hasn’t gotten its promotional act together. Jamie Kendrick should explain to kids at the closed rec centers why the city spends our tax dollars on this thing instead of them.

  • Margaret

    What an interesting article. It seems like the water taxi is, overall, an appropriate use of public funds if tied into an overall goal of creating an affordable, cohesive transportation system that gets people out of cars. I’m not sure I care if it is an “affluent” person who rides it versus anyone else. Cutting back on congestion is a worthy goal in and of itself, isn’t it? However, it does sound like the city needs to get its’ act together and promote the service.

  • Margaret

    Forgot to mention that the opening paragraph of this article is classic:

    In a city hoping to balance its strained budget with a bottled-beverage tax and fines for public drinking, spitting and urinating, there are still some fluid-related activities in Baltimore that don’t cost a thing: such as riding the water taxi.

  • monty burns

    Based on the numbers provided in the article– $209k in annual operating costs and an average of 200 riders per day–this water taxi service seems pretty cost effective. Operating costs come to $3.98 per passenger. With a little more ridership, that number could come down significantly. It’s considerably better than the per-passenger cost of the MTA.

    It seems like more advertising is necessary to boost ridership, but this seems like a worthy use of city money to reduce congestion downtown.

  • http://www.BaltimoreInnerSpace.blogspot.com Gerald Neily

    OK Monty, using your numbers, a round trip costs the city about an $8 subsidy, slightly less than a $10 Kane day pass. But Ed Kane’s $100 annual pass would be cheaper after 13 round trips. After 220 annual workdays, a commuter would pay 23 cents per ride, vs. $3.98 per ride under the city plan. What’s worse, any attempt by the city to reach out to new riders will take customers away from Kane’s regular service, because it will be more casual riders such as tourists, especially local tourists. That’s why Kane doesn’t promote it. Monty, you also do not mention capital investment (for boats, etc.), which the private sector should be able to attract. Service should not be segmented by public vs. private sector.

  • Mike

    I’m not sure I see where the conspiritorial tone of this article is coming from. The city is trying to step in where the state is not doing a good job – connecting transit points in the downtown area. It’s using the increase in the garage parking tax approved a few years ago to subsidize the water taxi connector and charm city circulator busses. They’re starting small and altering or rolling out expanded service as they build ridership. With regard to the Kane water taxi service, it was brought in as a partner and is being paid to operate commuter routes to destinations and during times when they’re not getting a lot of business otherwise. It’s also important to point out that the bulk of the circulator bus ridership comes from people who live in poorer west baltimore communities who use the service to get to work. The other thing to point out is that transit cannot operate on fair box recovery alone. There needs to be a subsidy.

  • Greg Hinchliffe

    Although the city is planning to install bike racks at the ferry stops, I wish they would use one of the pontoon boats for this service and accommodate bike aboard. The resultant increase in capture-area would boost ridership considerably. I don’t mind if it primarily serves more affluent patrons. As with all discretionary transit use, each upper class ferry rider is one fewer SUV clogging downtown streets.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/D77BH4VAFGUNRR745V5ZSK4LIE Fran

    Can anyone tell me if there is public parking that can be used if riding the ferry (from Locust Point) or if when bike racks will be installed?

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