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Water Bus Hybrid-electric ferry
First of eight production hybrid-electric powered Water Buses on Florida's Inter-Coastal waterway.

Broward's Hybrid-electric Water Buses

Interview with Robert Bekoff, president of Water Taxi and Canal Boats, Inc.

By Bill Moore

Due to the events of the last week, we did not write up part two of our interview with Water Bus entrepreneur, Robert Bekoff. You can listen to the remainder of the interview by click on the link at the right.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida is often referred to as the "Venice of Florida" with some 300 miles of interlacing canals linking the New River and the Inter-Coastal Waterway, which itself runs the length of the US coastline from Texas to New England.

It was this combination of natural and man-made waterways that inspired Robert Bekoff, then a yacht broker, to launch his Water Taxi service some 13 years ago. Now with the aide of two federal grants, Bekoff is about to launch the first hybrid-electric powered fleet of water buses in America. EV World contacted the former New Yorker to learn more about his project.

We asked what got him into the water taxi business and he jokingly responded, "A moment of weakness."

"I made two mistakes that day," he jested. The first was, he assumed that a water taxi business or harbor shuttle service would work in Ft. Lauderdale. "And the second was I got that day."

But all teasing aside, Bekoff's water taxi has been successful, carrying some 300,000 passengers yearly, about 85% of them tourists on various types of excursions from beachfront tours to scavenger hunts to murder mystery dinners afloat.

The current Water Taxi fleet consists of three classes of boats, a standard 28 feet-long vessel and the "Super Taxi" and "Mega Taxi" classes that measure from 32-38 feet long, respectively. All are powered by conventional, fossil-fuel, marine engines. Bekoff estimates his fleet burns about 3,500 gallons of fuel a month.

Urban Living Renaissance

Traffic congestion on the thoroughfares of Ft. Lauderdale and Miami is propelling the interest in developing Bekoff's small water taxi service into a fully-fledged transit system. According to published reports in the Sun-Sentinel and the Miami Herald, commutes in the South Florida area are taking increasing amounts of time as more and more vehicles vie for the limited roadways available. This is especially true in downtown Ft Lauderdale, Bekoff explains, because of what he calls the "rediscovery of downtown living."

According to Bekoff, who is also the president of Canal Boats, Inc., a local boat building firm that is also constructing the water buses, there is a boom in condo and apartment building in the inner urban areas of Ft. Lauderdale.

"Right now there are almost seven thousand housing units on the boards that are either under construction or in the planning stages in downtown."

Also contributing to congestion is the city's main attraction, its beachfront. "The traffic on the beach in the last fifteen years at least has been totally renovated, I guess is the best way to put it." He says that this renovation has attracted a lot of private and public development money including new parks and businesses. "At times the traffic on the beach can take you forty-five minutes to go a mile."

What makes this piece of waterfront real estate attractive to Bekoff and Broward County's transit authority, with whom he has partnered, is that 14,500 people work in this district, many of whom are potential Water Taxi and Water Bus customers.

He later explained that in the three counties that make up South Florida, there are nearly 6 million inhabitants and that it only makes sense to make use of all the "wet streets" that are part of the community.

"We have a tremendous number of commuters that work in the hospitality industry," including restaurants and hotels, he explained. These commuters either have to use private vehicles or land-based mass transit, which only contributes to the congestion problem. Enabling these workers to use a water-borne system would ease both traffic and parking on the beachfront.

However, because of the relative high cost of Bekoff's Water Taxi and its more tourist-oriented hours of operation - - typically not starting until 10:00 AM in the morning - - few of these workers use his service.

Bekoff reasoned that if he could increase the carrying capacity of his vessels while reducing their operating expenses, he could extend the hours of his service and cut the price of his fare. This might make his service both practical and attractive to these commuters. He calculated that by interfacing his schedule with Broward's bus schedule he could cut the time of the average commute downtown by 30 minutes on some routes.

Applying For Federal Grants

But Bekoff wasn't about to tackle the Water Bus project on his own. He knew he would need help financing the construction of the larger vessels he'd need and assistance in subsidizing the fares for his new service. So, he went looking for federal funds in the form of the $38 million a year federal Ferryboat Discretionary Fund, $20 million of which is used to fund ferry services mainly in Alaska, Washington and New Jersey.

Bekoff told EV World that by the time all the various earmarked funds are allocated, there is only about $4 million actually available for new programs like his and he found himself in competition with some 90 other applicants.

It took two applications and the aide of a powerful Florida Congressman for Bekoff's project to be funded. When the funds were finally awarded, Bekoff was given a little over $2 million dollars to finance the construction of the boats and a number of shore-side facilities to service as water "bus stops".

He puts the grant in perspective by explaining that for the same amount of money, the government would be able to pave just one mile of Interstate.

Although Bekoff's water buses, each capable of carrying more than 70 passengers, will be hybrid-electric powered, the grant did not specify this as a requirement. He said they could just as well have been conventional diesel-powered vessels, and in retrospect it might have been easier if they had been. "Boy, oh boy, it hasn't been fun from a financial standpoint," he lamented. "But I want to tell you from a satisfaction standpoint, it certainly has."

"We knew we were going to have to... make this project viable and continuous and to expand it throughout the county and actually the tri-county... So we made the decision when we said that we think alternative fuels and hybrids are going to be the wave of the future and we think that even the time is now. And our philosophy was we will do this if we can do it with off-the-shelf, plug-n-play kinds of items."

"We have a very, simple, simple system," he continued. His first generation system -- and there is a Gen II in development -- consists of a diesel generator connected to a variable frequency drive that runs twin-electric motors. The electric motors can also be powered by a bank of 240 volt lead-acid batteries, though there is no interconnection between the generator and the batteries at present. Interestingly, a new water bus service in Venice, Italy uses the very same set up, Bekoff commented.

His "off-the-shelf" components consist of Baldor electric motors, Danforth variable frequency drives, Moleum(?) electronic controls and controllers, and Zivan chargers; just kinds of things right off the shelf."

Bekoff turned to Matrix Utilities to help him design his "simple, simple" hybrid-drive.

"We went to Matrix and they did a pretty straight forward engineering job for us, including doing all the necessary Coast Guard drawings... We submitted all of that to the Marine Safety Center... "

The hulls of the boat are fiberglass, as is the superstructure. The bus deck is covered with a clear Lexan roof supported by an aluminum frame. Each vessel is 42 feet long, 11.5 feet wide and draw just under 3 feet of water. Each carries 70 passengers and a crew of two, the pilot having a master rating.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK.

Times Article Viewed: 8865
Published: 08-Sep-2001

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