Water Taxi Set for SouthSide Works

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
22 August 2011
By Jon Schmitz

If you're traveling between Downtown and the SouthSide Works, which would be more desirable?

A breezy, 15-minute boat ride along the Monongahela River or a ??-minute slog by car along East Carson Street?

To J.D. Fogarty, development director for the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, the choice is easy. "It would make a lot more sense to get on a water shuttle than to get on Carson Street," he said.

Water taxi service is expected to begin between the two destinations in early 2013, thanks in part to a $985,000 federal grant announced last week toward development of a shuttle landing at SouthSide Works.

Advocates say despite the spotty success of water taxi ventures across the last two decades here, the time might be ripe for another plunge.

The taxis have been popular as transport to events at PNC Park and Heinz Field and for private parties but have not caught on as a regular daily service. But a lot has changed, said Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of Riverlife.

"What is new ... is you have about a dozen new major public water landing locations," she said, including those at the Rivers Casino, Station Square, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the Strip District and the Monongahela Wharf. "We feel we're reaching that tipping point where a water taxi operator can offer a full range of services."

"This seems like it's ready to go," Mr. Fogarty said, noting growth in Downtown and riverfront housing and the number of riverside attractions, including the casino.

He envisions Downtown office workers riding to the SouthSide Works for an evening cocktail and also residents of the complex using the service to commute to jobs Downtown or visit the casino.

"It is probably one of the most viable landings [for a water taxi] because of the population density," he said.

"What's great about this [federal] grant is that it allows people who don't have boats to get onto the rivers," said Susheela Nemani-Stanger, senior project development specialist for Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Mark Schiller, vice president of operations for Pittsburgh Water Limo, which has plied the rivers here for about 12 years, said "if they put it in, we'll make use of it."

He said the landing "is one step forward" toward regular water taxi service on the rivers. "I think we're getting very close. A lot closer than we were five or 10 years ago."

A key, he said, will be for his company, which operates a 49-seat taxi called Miss Pittsburgh, to acquire a smaller, faster boat for longer trips. Mr. Schiller said he has spent six months searching but the boats are hard to find in the U.S.

The taxis would land near the Hofbrauhaus restaurant, where the URA is building the $12.8 million South Shore Riverfront Park. It will have switchback trails leading to the river, an amphitheater and other amenities.

The park "is a great example of our efforts to connect residents to the city's riverfronts, our most treasured natural assets," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said. "Accommodating a water taxi landing at this location will build on these efforts and help us take multimodal transport in Pittsburgh to the next level."

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission applied for the federal grant, which was announced last week by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as part of $18.8 million awarded to projects in Pennsylvania.

"We are extremely excited about it," Ms. Schroeder said. "The marina and landing at the SouthSide Works is the final phase of a spectacular riverfront park that is almost complete now."

The project is carving out river access on a tract that in its previous life as a steel mill was 30 feet above the water level. It is adjacent to the biking-hiking trail that will soon be complete from Downtown through Cumberland, Md., and on to Washington, D.C.

The upper portion of the new park is "98 percent complete," and work remains to be done on a section between a newly constructed river wall and the river's edge, Ms. Nemani-Stanger said.

Mr. Fogarty said bids for construction will be opened in October and the work will take about 14 months, wrapping up late next year. That would allow taxi service to begin the following spring.

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at http://www.post-gazette.com/roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic.