City Commission splits 3-2 on staff recommendation for $108,500 consulting contract
On a 3-2 vote, the Sarasota City Commission has authorized a $108,500 budget amendment to hire a St. Petersburg consulting firm to undertake a feasibility study regarding the potential for a water taxi service.
The goal, city Transportation Chief Planner Colleen McGue explained on April 15, is to determine where water taxi docks could be constructed, with city staff proposing the exploration of possibilities for St. Armands Circle, Ken Thompson Park on City Island and Marina Jack at Bayfront Park.
The firm approved for the project is was J Foster Consulting LLC, whose manager is Joseph T. Foster, according to a city staff memo.
The company handles underwater photography, hydrological surveys and bathygraphy, McGue told the City Commission. It “came highly recommended” from four different sources who had used its services, McGue added. One of those was the City of Naples.
(A Sarasota News Leader check of the consulting firm’s website also found a project it had conducted for the City of Madeira Beach.)
“We did a lot of research on this company,” city Planning Director Steven Cover added. Foster received “nothing but the highest of accolades. [The firm is] very scientific, very savvy, very experienced.”
McGue said the timeline calls for Foster Consulting to have its final report ready for presentation to the commission in January 2020. “So we’re looking for a quick turnaround on this.”
The Town of Longboat Key also may hire Foster Consulting to do similar work for the town, she noted, after town representatives discussed the mater with city staff.
Commissioner Willie Shaw, who made the motion to approve the budget amendment, pointed to the master plan for The Bay, the 53-acre waterfront park the commissioners have approved. Referencing comments city resident Martin Hyde made in opposition to the feasibility study’s expense, Shaw stressed that a water taxi “is a component of that project … just to not make [a water taxi] sound as ludicrous as others do.”
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded the motion.
Mayor Liz Alpert told her colleagues, “I think this is what we need to do in terms of being deliberate about making some of these multimodal [options] happen.” Referring to a comment Commissioner Hagen Brody had made — that a water taxi would be “a mild tourist attraction” that would not remove cars from the road — Alpert pointed out that tourists contribute to the traffic congestion about which people complain.
Alpert also concurred with Shaw about a water taxi service being part of the concept for The Bay’s public amenities.
“Obviously, I voted against this the last time” a water taxi was discussed, Brody said. “I’ve tried to push more practical solutions for traffic. … This is better left to the private sector.”
Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie also voted “No” on the motion, arguing that she believed staff could find grant funds for the feasibility study, instead of using money set aside from the BP settlement over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, or money from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) Trust Fund.
McGue had explained that staff was proposing to take $48,500 from the BP Reserves and $50,000 from the CRA budget, along with $58,000 in General Fund revenue, to pay for the study. (The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue the city receives.)
Noting that the city had only one response to the Request for Proposals (RFP) that it advertised for the feasibility study, Freeland Eddie added, “I think we should put [the RFP] back out there for bid,” as well as research the possibility of public/private funding partnerships.
Laying the groundwork
During the staff presentation, McGue explained that the City of Sarasota has had an ordinance since 2003 “to plan for alternative transportation services and the development [of] water taxi and water ferry services.” Yet, she continued, no water taxi operation has begun.
Commissioner Shaw noted the discussion the board members had in early 2017 with Capt. Sherman Baldwin of Paradise Boat Tours, who wanted to start a water taxi service from the 10th Street Boat Ramp, “and that didn’t work. … We didn’t have docking space.”
As part of staff’s work on the Transportation Master Plan that the commission approved earlier this year, McGue continued, staff felt a feasibility study regarding water taxis “would really add some positive value” to that plan.
After holding discussions with operators of such services, she said, “We have deemed it important” for the city to research issues relative to infrastructure for water taxis. The feasibility study, McGue added, “would really focus on technical issues instead of a market analysis for a water taxi …”
Staff then decided on the RFP from that perspective, she pointed out.
The only firm that responded, according to material provided to the commissioners in their agenda packets for the April 15 meeting, was Foster Consulting.
Commissioner Brody suggested that the RFP should have been for a water taxi operator. Perhaps such a company, he said, would “do this [research] for us and we wouldn’t have to spend this money.”
“There have been a few people that have been interested” in providing water taxi service to the city, McGue told him. In fact, she continued, they helped city staff settle on the scope of work outlined in the RFP.
However, many of the operators do not have the scientific background to undertake the work the city needs to have completed, Planning Director Cover pointed out.
The research, McGue added, “is really specific to public sites.”
Thanks to the expertise of the consulting firm, she said, city staff will “know exactly where the pickup and drop-off points will be” for a water taxi service.
“I think, frankly, it’s a silly idea,” Brody told her, referring to water taxi operations.
City staff could issue an RFP for water taxi operators after the research has been completed, Mayor Alpert said. “I know the county would also like to see [such an alternative form of transportation established].”
“Yes!” McGue responded. “There’s a lot of regional desire for this — Siesta Key, Longboat Key … That is a goal of the study.”