Press Room Special: Duck Boat Updates


Posted on Tuesday, February 1, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer
Ride the Ducks offers new safety measures

By Miriam Hill

If the duck boats return to the Delaware River, the company that operates the vehicles will significantly shorten the water portion of the ride and keep another vessel nearby to tow the ducks to safety should they become stranded.

The standby boat, which will be at Pier 5 near Arch Street, is one of several changes offered by Ride the Ducks in response to concerns raised by the U.S. Coast Guard after the July 7 accident that killed two duck-boat passengers, according to Coast Guard documents.

The documents, dated Aug. 27, indicate that the duck-boat operator and the Coast Guard have been discussing the conditions under which the concession can resume operations. The Coast Guard approved the return to the Delaware on Aug. 27, but details of the plan have not been officially released. The Inquirer obtained a copy of the approved plan.

Once the boats go from the ramp at the Race Street Pier into the Delaware, they will go only as far south as Pier 5. The boats previously had gone as far south as the Independence Seaport Museum.

The Delaware River ride will last about 15 minutes, about five minutes shorter than it used to be, but Ride the Ducks hopes to restore that time eventually once it has gotten experience working with the response boat. The company said it had not yet decided what changes would be made. The Coast Guard would have to authorize any amendments to the plan.

Although the ducks will operate within a much smaller area on the Delaware, passengers will still enjoy a good view of the city, Ride the Ducks vice president Bob Salmon said. On the old trip, the ducks moved quickly south.

"In this scenario, we won't be motoring as fast because we're just going to stay in the more confined area," he said.

The Coast Guard already has approved the Ride the Ducks plan to return its amphibious tour vehicles to the Delaware, although it is not clear how soon that will happen. The company hopes to have the boats operating this year.

"We were a little concerned about the interaction between a small duck boat and a large commercial vessel," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Todd Gatlin. "To address our concerns, [Ride the Ducks] came up with several safety mitigations that you see in the operations plan."

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the July 7 accident. A barge owned by the City of Philadelphia hit a duck boat that had stopped on the Delaware after its captain saw smoke coming from the engine. The first mate on the tug pushing that barge has refused to talk to investigators.

Ride the Ducks, based in Norcross, Ga., has maintained that its vehicles are safe.

"We have never experienced a guest injury on the water during our 33-plus-year history carrying millions on guests on hundreds of thousands of tours until July 7," Salmon said. "And on July 7 we were run over by a barge being pushed by a tug that did not respond to calls made by our captain and other mariners."


Posted on Wed, Jan. 26, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia's duck boats may return to the Delaware

By Miriam Hill

Just hours after the city rejected a plan Tuesday to move the duck boats to the Schuylkill, the company that operates them said it plans to return to the Delaware River, the site of a July 7 accident that killed two Hungarian tourists.

There appear to be few hurdles in the way - at least for now.

The Coast Guard has cleared Ride the Ducks, the Georgia company that runs the business, to resume operations on the Delaware.

Joseph Forkin, vice president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), which holds the lease for the ramp the ducks use, said his organization's agreement with Ride the Ducks was current. He said it was too early to comment further.

Chris Herschend, head of the company that operates Ride the Ducks in Philadelphia and four other locations, said he hoped to have the duck boats on the Delaware this year.

"We anticipate resuming operations here in Philadelphia. We're not sure exactly when," he said. "We turn our focus today back to resuming operations on the Delaware."

He said that he did not know when the ducks would return but that he believed it would be this year. The ducks generally begin their season in March and run through the fall.

The return to the Delaware likely will engender controversy. A barge owned by the City of Philadelphia hit a duck July 7, taking the lives of the two tourists. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to complete its investigation into the accident this summer.

The barge was being pushed by a tugboat, and the first mate on that boat has refused to talk to the NTSB.

Ride the Ducks has maintained that it was not at fault, but the accident focused concerns on whether small pleasure craft can operate safely on the Delaware, a narrow, busy shipping channel.

Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer for the families of the two who died in the accident, said he believed the risk of collision was higher on the Delaware, but said that was not the primary safety concern. He said he believed the ducks' canopies are unsafe because they trap people wearing life jackets if the craft sink. But if people do not wear life jackets, they are more likely to drown.

"The city's press release didn't address the most important issue, which is the safety of the men, women, and children who are on those vessels," he said. Ride the Ducks has repeatedly said that its watercraft are safe and has argued that the canopy probably protected the 35 people who survived the barge crash.

Gregory Adams, the Coast Guard's port captain in Philadelphia from 1998 to 2002, barred ducks from operating off Penn's Landing because of concern for their safety among larger ships. His successor, Jonathan Sarubbi, reversed Adams' ban in 2003, and the ducks have operated every year since.

The Coast Guard this summer cleared the ducks to return to the Delaware, but the agency could request changes to the vessels or deem them unsafe and bar them if the NTSB finds the duck contributed to or caused the barge accident.

"As far as the Coast Guard, [the ducks] have been approved for the Delaware River," Petty Officer Michael Lutz said Tuesday.

Bid documents submitted by Ride the Ducks to operate on the Schuylkill revealed the existence of a second investigation by "a law-enforcement agency," but did not say which agency or whether the investigation was criminal or civil. The documents also said Ride the Ducks "is not the focus of the investigation."

City officials had been promoting the Schuylkill as an alternative because it has far less traffic than the Delaware. But those plans ran into opposition from residents and others who feared the ducks would disrupt the recreational path and park on the Schuylkill.

To mitigate those concerns, the city and Ride the Ducks shifted the proposed entry point from the east to the west side of the Schuylkill, but they still could not make the plan workable.

Mayor Nutter said several problems hindered the proposed route from Old City down the Ben Franklin Parkway, over Martin Luther King Drive to the Schuylkill's west bank:

Noise, especially from the kazoos passengers play while riding the ducks.

The need to have three to six ducks at a time on the Schuylkill, which could interfere with other boats and disrupt the park's tranquillity.

The frequent shutdown of the Parkway for festivals and other public events.

The difficulty of making a sweeping turn off King Drive down to the river.

The need for a traffic light on the bridge so the ducks could turn safely.

"The city has fully reviewed Ride the Ducks' proposal for the Schuylkill River and does not feel that it meets the city's standards for operations," Nutter said.

Herschend, whose company is based in Norcross, Ga., said he was "disappointed, but we respect the city's decision."

Herschend had flown to Philadelphia to get the news from Managing Director Richard Negrin in an 8 a.m. meeting Tuesday.

Nutter said the city had little say in the decision to move to the Delaware because the company's lease is with the private DRWC. On the Schuylkill, the ducks would have traveled over city-owned park land, giving the city legal control.

Nutter has influence at the DRWC. He appoints the organization's board of directors, and four are city employees: Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler; Director of Federal Affairs Terry Gillen; Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger; and Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the Planning Commission.

Nutter said he could not say whether he would request safety or other changes if the ducks resumed operations on the Delaware because he had no proposal to consider.

Happy C. Fernandez, president of Moore College of Art and Design and a member of the Parkway Council, an alliance of the boulevard's cultural institutions, said she was pleased the ducks would not move to the Schuylkill.

"I, and a number of people on the Parkway Council, did not want duck boats quacking all and up and down the Parkway," Fernandez said.

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.


Posted on Wed, Jan. 26, 2011, Philadelphia Daily News
Soft landing for Ducks in Delaware?

By REGINA MEDINA

No Schuylkill? No problem.

Ride the Ducks, a tour-boat company, said yesterday that it has approval from the Coast Guard to reboot its operations on the Delaware River, after the city denied its bid to operate on the scenic Schuylkill.

"I'll expect that we'll aim for returning to the Delaware, and we're going to work closely with our stakeholders, being the Coast Guard and the city, on that decision in the coming weeks," Chris Herschend, president of the company, said yesterday.

The city denied Ride the Duck's plans to use the Schuylkill yesterday because the city's "standards for operations" were not met by the amphibious-vehicle operator, according to the mayor's office.

Mayor Nutter cited concerns about traffic in the Art Museum area and how the boats would operate on days when special events shut down traffic there.

The plan would have taken passengers from the Independence Mall area toward City Hall and the Art Museum, and then into the Schuylkill, which is devoid of the shipping traffic that plies the Delaware.

The Schuylkill plan came to be after the accident on the Delaware on July 7 that killed two Hungarian tourists after a city-owned barge was pushed by a tugboat into a duck boat.

Three weeks after a preliminary report was released by the National Transportation Safety Board in September, the city and the company announced a plan for Ride the Ducks to operate in the Schuylkill.

After public backlash to that plan, the city opened up a bidding process in December. Ride the Ducks was the lone applicant.

"From the very start of this process, the public concerns were an active voice in these deliberations," Nutter said.

The public wasn't involved, however, in the review process over the bid to use the Schuylkill by Ride the Ducks. The Nutter administration refused to divulge the identities of those on the panel deciding the bid.

"Many people who were against having any entertainment tour on the Schuylkill are very happy, but there should have been a much more open process so that people would have known what was going on," said Russell Meddin, co-coordinator of the Schuylkill River Park Alliance.

Nutter said the city had no immediate plans to put out another request for proposals for amphibious vehicles on the Schuylkill. The city was able to block this plan because the intended route onto the river was through city property.

But the city had no sign-off over the boats on the Delaware, Nutter said. "We had no contractual relationship with them," he said of the prior arrangement.

Ride the Ducks' contract to operate in the Delaware is with the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. The corporation owns the land where Ride the Ducks built a ramp to access the river in 2003, Herschend said. The company pays rent to use the land, he said.

The families of the victims of the duck-boat accident, Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem, said in a statement released by their attorneys yesterday: "How many deaths by duck boat does it take before the lesson is learned that in their current state of design they're an accident waiting to happen?"

medinar@phillynews.com 215-854-5985
Staff writer Catherine Lucey contributed to this report.


Posted on Tues, January 25, 2011, PlanPhilly
No amphibious boats on the Schuylkill

By Kellie Patrick Gates

The city will not award a contract for amphibious vehicle tours of the Schuylkill River, Mayor Michael A. Nutter announced today.

“The City has fully reviewed Ride the Ducks proposal for the Schuylkill River and does not feel that it meets the City’s standards for operations,”  Nutter said in a written statement.

An RFP was issued on November 19, 2010 for Amphibious Tours on the Schuylkill River.  Ride the Ducks submitted the only response. The Managing Director’s Office, Parks and Recreation, the Office of Transportation and the Law Department carefully crafted that RFP to capture many community concerns, including noise, traffic, the on Schuylkill Banks and other potential disruptions of recreational uses on the River.

Managing Director Richard Negrin said in the statement, “We appreciate Ride the Ducks efforts to address community concerns, but when all is said and done the proposal’s potential traffic impact, the number of vessels that could be on the river at one time and the inability for the tours to operate during special events were issues with which the City was uncomfortable.”

A technical review committee consisting of representatives of the Managing Director’s Office, Office of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, Office of Economic Opportunity, Commerce Department and Planning Commission, with input from Finance, Law and Risk Management, unanimously recommended that the contract not be awarded.

The Ride the Ducks tour used to take folks around the city's historic sites on land and then by water on the Delaware River. That stopped after a July 7, 2010 incident in which two people were killed and many others were plunged into the Delaware.


Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011, Philly Clout
BREAKING NEWS: No Contract For Duck Boat Company

By Catherine Lucey

Mayor Nutter today announced that the city will not award a contract to the amphibious tour company Ride the Ducks to operate on the Schuylkill River.

“The City has fully reviewed Ride the Ducks proposal for the Schuylkill River and does not feel that it meets the City’s standards for operations,” said Nutter in a press release.

Back in October, the city announced that Ride the Ducks would be moving to the Schuylkill in March. The boats, which previously toured the Delaware River, have not been in operation since a July 7 accident in which two tourists were killed.

Not long after that announcement, the city said it was legally required to permit a competitive bidding process. Ride The Ducks was the only bidder for the contract.

The prospect of moving the boats to the Schuylkill has met with substantial opposition in the surrounding neighborhoods. In today's announcement, Managing Director Rich Negrin said the city was concerned about the impact on traffic and how the tours could operate during special events.

On July 7, a duck boat with 37 people on board was hit by a city-owned sludge barge being pushed by a tugboat operated by a private contractor. The duck boat capsized, and two Hungarian tourists were killed.

For more details, here's the press release from the Mayor's Office:

CITY OF PHILADELPHIA DOES NOT AWARD CONTRACT FOR AMPHIBIOUS TOURS ON THE SCHUYLKILL RIVER

Philadelphia, January 25, 2011 – Mayor Michael A. Nutter announced today that the City of Philadelphia will not award a contract in response to its request for proposal (RFP) for an amphibious tour on the Schuylkill River.

“The City has fully reviewed Ride the Ducks proposal for the Schuylkill River and does not feel that it meets the City’s standards for operations,” said Mayor Nutter.

An RFP was issued on November 19, 2010 for Amphibious Tours on the Schuylkill River. The Managing Director’s Office, Parks and Recreation, the Office of Transportation and the Law Department carefully crafted that RFP to capture many community concerns, including noise, traffic, the on Schuylkill Banks and other potential disruptions of recreational uses on the River. Responses were due on December 22, 2010. Ride the Ducks submitted the only response

Managing Director Richard Negrin said, “We appreciate Ride the Ducks efforts to address community concerns, but when all is said and done the proposal’s potential traffic impact, the number of vessels that could be on the river at one time and the inability for the tours to operate during special events were issues with which the City was uncomfortable.”

A technical review committee consisting of representatives of the Managing Director’s Office, Office of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, Office of Economic Opportunity, Commerce Department and Planning Commission, with input from Finance, Law and Risk Management, unanimously recommended that the contract not be awarded.

Posted by Catherine Lucey @ 11:21 AM  Permalink | 17 comments


Posted on Fri, Jan. 21, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer
Changing Skyline: Should the duck boats be on the Schuylkill - at all?

By Inga Saffron

The people who run the Ride the Ducks tours may be quackers, but they're not stupid. Recognizing the public opposition to their plan to tear up Philadelphia's beloved Schuylkill Banks park, they've come up with a new spot for their boat launch, a sliver of land on the west side of the river, in the shadow of I-76.

Although the new route was submitted to the city in late December, the Nutter administration has kept the contents a virtual state secret while it negotiates a financially - and politically - acceptable deal with the tour company. But details began leaking out after Ride the Ducks presented the scheme Jan. 4 to the Parkway Council, an influential alliance of the boulevard's cultural institutions.

The new route will certainly make a duck boat operation on the Schuylkill more palatable to some Philadelphians. The company has scrapped its outrageous plan to cut a trench through a lush section of the popular waterfront park, and would instead access the river from a bit of waste ground on the opposite bank.

But the question remains: Should the lumbering boats be on the Schuylkill at all?

It's not an easy one to answer. Until now, all the attention has been on the land-based issues.

How would the bus-size, amphibious craft travel crosstown from their nest near Independence Hall to Center City's west side? How would the noise from the ducks' kazoo-playing riders affect the elegant atmosphere along the city's museum-lined Parkway? Would the noise and traffic compromise one of Philadelphia's few waterfront success stories?

Now, it's time for a serious examination of the water issues. Ride the Ducks decided to move its tours to the Schuylkill after being involved in a fatal crash in July on the busy Delaware River, where its boats were mere specks amid the tankers and barges. While the Schuylkill rarely draws more than a few kayakers to the area below the dam, the park's champions believe recreational boating has potential to grow. But will small craft be safe when the ducks are the biggest fish on the river? It's not clear who will respond to an acccident - the Coast Guard or the city police.

In Version 2.0 of the ducks plan, Parkway Council members told me, the amphibious boats would still follow the same crosstown route along Arch Street, before heading up the Parkway, and around Eakins Oval, to reach the water. But now the vehicles would keep going, continuing over the Schuylkill on Martin Luther King Drive.

Once on the west side, the duck boats would make a left turn onto the Schuylkill's narrow bank and begin their descent to the water. Since this part of the drive is a notorious speedway, Ride the Ducks would need to install a stop sign or signal at the company's own expense to enable its boats to turn onto the bank safely.

The new plan is a big improvement over the trench, but a west-bank launch doesn't solve all the problems with the amphibious tours. Nor did it completely win over the Parkway Council.

Members remain worried about noise - not just on the Parkway, but also emanating from the river, said Happy Craven Fernandez, president of Moore College of Art & Design, which fronts on Logan Square. In a Jan. 6 letter sent to Mayor Nutter and Managing Director Richard Negrin, the council asked that a "no-quack zone" be declared for the entire area west of City Hall.

And they want that in writing.

"It's not just for us on the Parkway," explained Fernandez. "People want peace and quiet on the trail. They might listen to music through their headphones, but they want to be able to choose their own noise."

The council was more mixed on the subject of the traffic signal, which would be activated by the duck-boat driver. On one hand, it could help calm traffic from the drive, which now pours into Eakins Oval at top speed. A year ago, a young bicyclist was badly injured when a motorist failed to stop at a pedestrian crosswalk near the Schuylkill Banks trailhead.

At the same time, some council members worry that left-turning duck boats could create a new hazard.

The section of King Drive that crosses the river is one of the city's most treacherous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Sidewalks are so narrow that people walk single-file. And there are no marked bike lanes. What precautions, the council members wondered, could be taken to protect people who come to the area for recreation?

All in all, the council's Jan. 6 letter concluded, they'd rather see the ducks stay on the Delaware.

The William Penn Foundation, which has donated several million dollars for Schuylkill Banks improvements, including several floating docks, is worried about the ducks' impact on the river. In a Dec. 1 letter to the Schuylkill River Development Corp., which oversees the river park, the foundation expressed concern that Ride the Ducks could crowd out recreational boaters. The company plans to send 60 boats a day into the Schuylkill during its peak summer season.

But the Center City District's Paul Levy, also a member of the Parkway Council, believes there is room enough on the Schuylkill for duck boats and kayaks alike. He also questions the noise concerns, given the steady hum from the expressway traffic.

"Frankly, I think people won't even notice the boats," he argued. "This is a big city. If you're going to be hospitality-oriented, you have to put up with a certain amount of noise."

That said, Levy believes the Delaware probably remains the better environment for the duck boats to operate. The Coast Guard has given the tours permission to return to that river.

Schuylkill vs. Delaware? The argument is really academic. Until the National Transportation Safety Board issues its report explaining why two people died in July during a routine Ride the Ducks tour, it's too soon to choose.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.


Posted on Thu, Jan. 13, 2011, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Editorial: Secret duck-boat deliberations

Why is Mayor Nutter's administration applying star-chamber secrecy to its deliberations on a public policy issue of widespread interest: whether to let duck-boat tours disrupt the bucolic Schuylkill?

This isn't exactly the Manhattan Project.

Yet Managing Director Richard Negrin refuses to name the city officials who are advising the mayor on whether Ride the Ducks will get to resume tours this spring, eight months after the death of two patrons in a July 7 crash on the Delaware River.

Committee members were pulled together from Negrin's staff, the Planning Commission, the mayor's transportation office, the Commerce Department, and the Parks and Recreation Department.

Under the state's open records law, there are no grounds to keep their identities secret.

But an aide says Negrin is keeping the panel cloaked so that its members can "review the proposal without being pressured."

By that logic, though, City Council should hold its sessions in private so the members could deliberate without any pressure.

The lack of disclosure doesn't say much for the mayor's pledge of an open and transparent City Hall, either.

It could reinforce the perception that the skids have been greased for the duck boats, regardless of the ill-advised plan to bring the World War II-style vehicles traveling across town, filled with quacking tourists, to the Schuylkill.

After all, the city and Ride the Ducks officials first announced the tour's return to operation only to be advised by the city solicitor to first seek bids. Then the request for proposals for a waterborne tour produced only one bidder: Ride the Ducks.

With only one bidder, the city's best course seems clear: Seek another round of bids or, better yet, scrap the whole idea of an amphibious tour.

Rather than anybody pressuring city officials to make a sensible decision, the administration appears to be ignoring impassioned public opposition to relaunching the duck-boat tours and moving them from the Delaware.

Community residents are right that the gas-guzzling, duck-boat vehicles would be an unwelcome presence anywhere near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Art Museum, or the Schuylkill Banks trail.

That, at least, is no secret.


Posted on Thu, Jan. 13, 2011, Philadelphia Daily News
Ronnie Polaneczky: Ducks on the Schuylkill: Public getting goosed?

By Ronnie Polaneczky

THERE I WAS on Tuesday, poking around the American Bus Association's trade show at the Convention Center, when I spied a rack of materials promoting Philly's visitor attractions.

Displayed amidst the brochures and pamphlets was a glossy, blue-and-green flyer. Its banner read, "Inter-Quacktive fun for Groups of all Ages!"

I figured that the flyer belonged to Ride the Ducks, since anything in this city containing the word "quack" is often associated with the amphibious-tour company.

What I never expected was that the two-sided sheet would breathlessly promote Ride the Duck's "City and Schuylkill River Adventure."

Wait . . . what?

Schuylkill?

Everyone knows that Ride the Ducks, whose Delaware River operations were suspended after last July's fatal crash, wants to shift operations to the Schuylkill.

But public response has not been enthusiastic, especially among users of lovely Schuylkill River Park.

The addition of garish, quacking, diesel-stinking boats to the western waters could heavily impact the park - a skinny slice of riverfront that has been transformed from a scary wasteland to an urban Eden.

Ride the Ducks submitted its Schuylkill proposal to the city managing-director's office last month, and a panel of reviewers is mulling it as we speak. A decision may not come for weeks, city officials tell me.

Yet, Ride the Ducks' flyer is advertising a Schuylkill tour right now, as though the company has already gotten the green light.

The water tour "is on a portion of the Schuylkill River that is free of large commercial traffic," the flyer explained, an apparent acknowledgement that last summer's crash was with a barge. Passengers, it also noted, could "use the famous Wacky Quackers" and "quack along with the captain and the music."

What the duck?

"No, this isn't a done deal," said Ride the Ducks vice president Bob Salmon, when I asked if, indeed, this was a done deal. "We're still waiting for the city's response to our proposal."

(Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy said the same thing. He added that he was "surprised" that Ride the Ducks is advertising a Schuylkill tour).

Salmon said that his company's representatives attend annual trade shows, like the American Bus Association's, to promote duck rides to tour operators.

These operators, he says, tend to book events one to two years down the road. So anyone reviewing the Ducks flyer would likely be thinking in terms of tours in 2012 or even 2013.

By then, he hopes, a Schuylkill operation would be up and running. So, the materials reflect his dream for the future, not the current reality.

(Except that the company website, which markets to the public, not to tour operators, also is pushing the Schuylkill tour.)

"Our hope is that we get approval," Salmon said. "If not, then we obviously would go back to the tour operators and change our plans."

As for this summer, he says, "We intend to operate in Philly in 2011. We are just waiting to learn when and where."
 
If Salmon sounds confident of getting what he wants, well, why wouldn't he?

Almost from the day it opened here in 2003, Ride the Ducks has enjoyed special treatment from both the city and from the Independence Visitor Center Corporation, when it comes to competing for tourist dollars.

For years, I've written in this column about the company's mysterious clout. Ride the Ducks uses a slippery legal technicality to garner huge visibility for itself outside the IVCC. It has brokered big visibility indoors, too.

But the city and the IVCC have ignored complaints from small operators who've asked for a level playing field, as per National Park Service concessions laws.

I've been wading through a thicket of e-mails between Ride the Ducks representatives and lobbyists, the IVCC and city officials. They appear to show the city's enthusiastic support for Ride the Ducks while being dismissive of its competitors.

(I'll share highlights in a future column, once I've read through all thousand e-mails.)

Even now, the race to accommodate Ride the Ducks is bizarre. From the city's initial announcement in October (sans public input) that the Ducks would move to the Schuylkill, to its eventual request for a proposal that is basically tailored for the Ducks - well, you've gotta wonder what's going on.

You could argue that the city is just trying to keep a Philadelphia business afloat, a good thing. But I suspect that argument is not all it's quacked up to be.

If a troubling situation looks like a duck and acts like a duck, it just might be a duck.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217.


Posted on Thu, Jan. 13, 2011, Philadelphia Daily News
Feds: Duck-boat loading zone poses security risk

By REGINA MEDINA

Ride the Ducks has its work cut out for it in Philadelphia.

The duck-boat company is facing a number of lawsuits and trying to get city approval to resume operating. And now the feds are breathing down its neck.

Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and other federal officials have told the National Park Service and city officials that Ride the Ducks' former loading zone along 6th Street north of Market poses a security risk to the federal courthouse.

McKee said the attempted bombing of Times Square last May made the moving of the duck boats from 6th Street more urgent.

"This is a no-brainer. We have to take steps to address this," he said in an interview with the Daily News.

"We don't want anything to jeopardize the duck-boat business. Our concern is that they don't jeopardize our security. It's not just them. It's everybody."

Highlighting one security concern, McKee wrote in a Nov. 3 letter to John Estey, the board chairman of the Independence Visitors Center, that U.S. Marshals in unmarked vehicles were able to access the location where the duck boats are stored and "no one challenged them or asked what they were doing."

It's unknown where the duck boats would load from if their proposal to start using the Schuylkill River, rather than the Delaware, is approved by the city.

The National Park Service declined in May to renew four Commercial Use Authorizations - licenses that allowed for the use of the sidewalk on 6th Street to board amphibious vehicles - for Ride the Ducks, Penn Ducks, Philly Ducks and River Ducks, all owned by Ride the Ducks International.

Bob Salmon, marketing and sales vice president for Ride the Ducks, said the company's priority is to discuss its proposal to begin using the Schuylkill River for its tours with the city.

"We have every intention to operate from the Independence Visitors Center, and our hope is to operate from the 6th Street side of the visitors center," Salmon said.

"We don't think that the assessment of us being a security risk is fair," he added.

No parking is allowed on the other streets that border the courthouse: Market, 7th and Arch.

"Allowing parking on one side doesn't make any sense," McKee said.

Even though Ride the Ducks' operations have been shut down since a July 7 accident on the Delaware River, resulting in the deaths of two tourists, its official website still lists 6th and Market as the pickup point.

It also tells customers that it's planning to resume operations this spring.

medinar@phillynews.com 215-854-5985


Posted on Mon, Jan. 10, 2011, Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia keeping players in duck boat decision out of public eye

By Miriam Hill

Sometime this month, a group of city officials will advise Mayor Nutter on whether to let Ride the Ducks start operating boats on the Schuylkill.

But the Nutter administration will not say who those officials are, even though state open-records laws broadly define what public information is.

"I can't think of any situation under which that information would be shielded," said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

Two tourists were killed July 7 in an accident on the Delaware River when a city barge ran over a duck boat. In October, the city and Ride the Ducks announced that the vehicles would start operating again in March, but on the Schuylkill near the Art Museum.

The city's legal department later determined that the proposed operation had to be put out to bid, leading the city to issue a request for proposals.

Ride the Ducks, owned by a company in Norcross, Ga., was the only bidder.

The committee reviewing the bid will include representatives from the Managing Director's Office, the Planning Commission, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Transportation, the Office of Economic Opportunity, and the Commerce and Parks and Recreation Departments, according to Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to Managing Director Richard Negrin.

He said the Managing Director's Office did not want to release the names of those involved "because these people are experts in their fields and deserve an opportunity to review the proposal without being pressured."

The committee will make a recommendation to Nutter, who will make the final decision, Abernathy said.

Fears that the duck boats would disrupt the tranquillity of the riverfront park near the Art Museum have fueled opposition to the plan and requests for more public involvement.

In recent years, the city has transformed that area into a park with a long trail for running, walking, biking, and other activities.

City and company officials have said that to minimize disruption to the trail, the duck boats would go under the path or would enter the river on the west side between Martin Luther King Drive and the Spring Garden Bridge, an area that gets little recreational use.

On Thursday, the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, a group of park advocates, sent an e-mail to 4,994 constituents, asking them to e-mail the mayor, the Managing Director's Office, and Ride the Ducks to urge them to share details of the company's bid before a decision is made.

The city says it will not release information about the bid until it decides. That is all that state open-records laws require.

"It's a larger public-policy question," Abernathy said. "We understand the intense interest, and we have heard the concerns."

Sarah Clark Stuart, who coordinated the e-mail effort for the park alliance, said 89 people had sent the e-mails as of late Friday.

She said that providing the public with details of the bid and the names of city officials involved in the decision could improve perceptions about the project.

"Our sense is that the community is very, very concerned about the proposal and wants to know what is being proposed," she said. "The unknown nature of it is not something that the community is happy about."

Abernathy and others in the administration have repeatedly denied accusations of secrecy and have said they may not put the ducks on the Schuylkill if they cannot figure out how to do so in a way that honors the park environment.

The city's request for proposals, for example, limited how much noise the tour operator can make on parkland, including forbidding the use of bullhorns and "noisemakers," a provision aimed at the kazoos that Ride the Ducks passengers are given.

Ride the Ducks vice president Bob Salmon said company officials would like to make their bid public because they believe that doing so would help people understand "the advantages that we bring to the table by extending our tour to the lower Schuylkill."

The company has agreed to abide by the city's decision to make the bid public after officials decide, he said.

"We understand the city's process," Salmon said. "It's painful for us because we feel strongly about our proposal, but we understand what the city wants and has to do."


Posted on Mon, Jan. 3, 2011, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Editorial: Paddling upstream

Some may think the duck boats were an endangered species, given the way the Nutter administration appears to be forging ahead with a misguided plan to bring the lumbering, noisy vehicles, filled with quacking tourists, to the bucolic Schuylkill.

Despite impassioned public opposition to moving the ducks across town from the Delaware River, the administration belatedly sought bids for an amphibious tour operator on the Schuylkill.

No surprise, the bidding produced just one bid - the same Ride the Ducks attraction involved in a fatal crash on July 7. With no competing proposals, Nutter administration officials will be left to evaluate the bid in a vacuum. Clearly, there's not a big market for this attraction.

There's also an issue raised by a would-be tour competitor, who contends that Ride the Ducks should not be awarded a contract while it's suing in court over the barge crash that killed two tourists. While city officials say the litigation isn't a problem, the issue is worth a more thorough review - if only to reassure the public that the skids haven't been greased for the duck boats.

As for the lack of competing bids, an aide to city Managing Director Richard Negrin contends that isn't a roadblock. But he has acknowledged the city might not award the contract if the ducks tour proves disruptive to the Schuylkill Banks park, where the boats might enter the river.

Enough said. The duck boats are sure to clog traffic as they lumber across Center City, while also making pedestrians' dash across the Benjamin Franklin Parkway more hair-raising. Their plunge into the river near the Art Museum will disrupt the experience for the many residents and workers who flock to the river trail to jog, stroll and cycle.

A possible plan to dig a huge trench under the riverside trail has been estimated to cost more than $1 million. In addition to its immediate impact on Schuylkill Banks, the city could be stuck with a large, unsightly ditch if the duck boats attraction dries up and skips town.

Center City and the Parkway certainly would not be enhanced by the addition of 60 tours per day ferrying their kazoo-wielding riders. In fact, the same goes for the entire 20-block slog from Independence Visitors Center on Sixth Street, where the duck boats board.

Philadelphia, its many historic attractions and its tourist trade, will get along just fine without a tour that involves trucking visitors across town in gas-guzzling, amphibious, World War II vehicles.

Given the deadly incident and residents' objections, city officials shouldn't climb aboard the lame ducks again.


Posted on Wed, Dec. 22, 2010, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Editorial: Duck plan doesn't fly

Public opposition to amphibious boat tours on the Schuylkill should persuade the Nutter administration to abandon the idea.

After too much behind-the-scenes discussion, city officials finally held a public meeting at the Free Library about the proposal. The response from neighbors was strong and united: Allowing Ride the Ducks or another tour operator into the area would be a bad move.

The city is accepting proposals for the tours, and an aide to Managing Director Richard Negrin said no decisions have been made. City officials say it's possible that nobody will be awarded a contract to run the land-and-water tours.

That's not how it looks to the public. Since late summer, it's been apparent that City Hall has been predisposed to renewing the tours, with the Schuylkill as the destination. Mayor Nutter even issued a premature news release announcing that Ride the Ducks would resume its tours there in March, before his team realized the city needed to solicit bids.

Negrin's response to the opposition is that tourists enjoy the Ride the Ducks tours. It's a weak argument for invading neighborhoods and a serene park with exhaust-belching, noisy vehicles filled with quacking riders. Tourists are not drawn to Philadelphia to ride these vehicles.

The people pushing to move amphibious tours to the Schuylkill got one thing right - the Schuylkill Banks park is a beautiful spot for a boat tour. From the Waterworks to Bartram's Garden, the river offers breathtaking views of the city and glimpses of a neglected history.

More people should take advantage of the kayak tours and a limited seasonal passenger boat tour. But driving amphibious vehicles across town to reach this location, and then building a proposed access tunnel into the riverbank, would disrupt the character of this setting.

The issue arose after last summer's fatal accident on the Delaware River, in which two tourists were killed when a Ride the Ducks boat was struck by a barge at Penn's Landing. In the aftermath, the tours were discontinued, and the city began looking for an alternative to the Delaware River.

Since then, the process has seemed to be aimed at finding another waterway, any waterway, for Ride the Ducks to cruise. The Schuylkill seems a poor choice, situated as it is across town from the tour operator's embarkation point on Independence Mall. In the peak of the season, about 60 tours per day would be quacking and chugging their way along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, past the Art Museum, and down into the Schuylkill.

Bids for a new tour concession are to be opened on Wednesday. City officials say they are keeping an open mind on whether or not to renew the tours. Let's hope they really mean it.


Posted on Wed, Dec. 15, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer
Residents dislike Ducks

By Miriam Hill

About 100 people who came to a meeting at the Free Library Wednesday night all had one thing to say: They don't want duck boats on the Schuylkill.

"I don't think you've heard a single person welcome a duck tour on the Schuylkill, and I hope that's the message you'll take back. We don't want it," Jovida Hill told Philadelphia's Managing Director Richard Negrin near the end of the evening.

The Schuylkill Park Alliance, an advocacy group, hosted the meeting to let residents share their thoughts on moving the duck boats from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill in the spring.

The proposed shift follows a July 7 duck boat accident on the Delaware that killed two people. In October, Mayor Nutter and Ride the Ducks, the Georgia company that operates the amphibious vehicles, announced plans to have them return to the water on the Schuylkill instead of on the Delaware.

Since then, the city has said it is seeking proposals from Ride the Ducks and from other companies because the law requires a competitive process. Those proposals are due next week, and Negrin said it is possible no one will be selected at all.

"I want to be really clear," Negrin said. "No decision has been made. There is no plan at this point."

Many speakers feared the duck vehicles will disrupt the quiet Schuylkill Park, which has become so popular that people used its recreational path for more than 2,200 trips daily this summer.

Negrin and Ride the Ducks officials had previously described building a trench that will go under the recreational path, but on Wednesday, he said none of that was certain. The proposed new route would go through Old City, down the Parkway and enter the Schuylkill near the Art Museum.

The Delaware River tour, which was suspended after the accident, includes loud music, and passengers "quacking" with kazoos.

"Who wants to listen to that when you're running and trying to ride your bike or when you're lying on the grass and reading your book," asked Ginny Nelson, who lives near the park.

Negrin said city officials had written the request for proposals to require that a tour operator minimize noise, but Kathryn Streeter Lewis said such language only proves that "there will be some noise."

Neal Nandi, who works for The Constitutional Walking Tour, a local tour company interested in getting the ducks contract, said the city had initially given potential bidders only 15 business days to analyze the opportunity. The deadline has since been extended by three days, but Nandi said it is not enough time to analyze a complicated project, raising questions about whether city officials really wanted companies besides Ride the Ducks to apply.

Brian Abernathy, Negrin's chief of staff, said such time frames were typical in the city. Philadelphia officials expect to name the companies that bid Jan. 9. Officials from the Managing Director's Office, and the departments of Commerce, Parks and Recreation, and Transportation will be involved in picking the winner.

Carol Katarsky, who also lives near the park, said the duck boats would disturb a beloved park while doing nothing for the neighborhood near the Art Museum. Passengers will not get off the vehicles to shop or eat in the area, she said.

"Why are we being asked to absorb this with no benefit to our community," she asked.

Negrin responded that "People like the ducks." But he also said the city was open to something other than the ducks that allowed people to see Philadelphia from the water. The Schuylkill Park Alliance does offer boat tours of that river, but they are nowhere near as frequent as the duck trips.

Residents at the meeting worried that the estimated 60 duck vehicles a day would clog traffic around Eakins Oval.

On July 7, a K-Sea Transportation Partners tug pushing a barge owned by the city crashed into a duck boat on the Delaware River, killing Hungarian tourists Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16.

The duck boat had stopped on the Delaware after its captain saw smoke coming from the engine. Capt. Gary Fox radioed for help and issued warnings over marine channels, saying he had no power. He also asked the tug to change course. The tug's first mate was at the helm. He has refused to be interviewed by the NTSB.

The Coast Guard is waiting for results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the July 7 accident. The NTSB investigation is not expected to be completed until next year. If the NTSB determines that the duck vehicles' design contributed to the passenger deaths, the Coast Guard could request changes to their design or declare them unsafe and bar them from the water.

In August, Congressman Bob Brady said he believed the duck vehicles were "not safe for either our streets or our waterways and urged the Coast Guard to deny Ride the Ducks permits.

Lawyers for the accident victims have argued that canopies on the boat hindered passengers' escapes, but Ride the Ducks spokesman Bob Salmon said the canopies protected passengers from the impact of the barge. He also said the Coast Guard already had approved the Ducks plans to return to the Delaware but the company wanted to switch to the Schuylkill instead.

"The question remains why did these calls go unanswered and why won't the first mate cooperate in the investigation," Salmon said.

Contact Staff Writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com


Posted on Thursday, November 25, 2010, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Plan for Duck boats barely floating

The Nutter administration made the right move in retreating from a tentative plan to construct a tour-boat ramp on the Schuylkill River near the Art Museum. But the mayor’s team still seems determined to allow amphibious tours on the Schuylkill. There must be more public discussion before anyone reaches that conclusion.
 
Two months ago, Nutter announced that Ride the Ducks tour vehicles would be allowed to cruise the Schuylkill, starting in March. That decision followed a fatal collision between a tour boat and a city-owned barge last summer in the Delaware River, where Ride the Ducks normally operated. Turns out, the mayor spoke too soon. City officials overlooked a state law that requires any concession on city-owned land to be competitively bid. The city began accepting bids Tuesday for tour proposals. The bidding puts a halt, at least temporarily, to a proposal for Ride the Ducks to construct a trench-like boat ramp in the Schuylkill Banks park just off Martin Luther King Drive, down river from the Art Museum. The plan would have required digging under a popular bike path, or raising it, to allow the boats to reach the river.
 
The lack of public input and disclosure involved in moving the tours has been troubling. Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy worked with Ride the Ducks on a conceptual plan, but he wouldn’t release it when asked by The Inquirer a month ago. That was after the mayor announced that Ride the Ducks would move its operations to the Schuylkill. Managing Director Richard Negrin now says there may be other locations suitable for the boats to enter the Schuylkill, and that city officials value the park. He even said the city had not committed definitely to the Schuylkill.
 
The Nutter administration is saying it’s not a done deal, but the signs have all been pointing to the Schuylkill as the destination. Ride the Ducks hired an engineer to work out design details for a Schuylkill ramp, and announced on its website that it would begin operating its Duck boats there in March. Ride the Ducks planned to drive the vehicles from Independence Mall along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum. The amphibious vehicles would then loop around Eakins Oval and head west on King Drive. The plan called for building a new U-turn into a traffic island to gain access to the trench/ramp. It must be hoped that discussions going forward put a premium on citizen input and openness.
 
It was the right call not to return the tour boats to the Delaware, with its heavy shipping traffic. The Schuylkill would be safer, and its views of the city are much better than the former Duck route on the Delaware. But it still appears impractical to drive these tour vehicles more than 20 blocks across town from the spot where tourists board them, at the Independence Visitors Center on Sixth Street. In fact, in addition to considering new proposals, city officials should take another look at whether these amphibious tours are desirable anywhere in Center City.

Posted by Iquirer Editorial Board @ 2:30 AM


Posted on Tue, Nov. 23, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer
City retreats on duck tours: Proposals will be sought that could spare the popular Schuylkill Banks recreation trail.

By Inga Saffron

Two months after Mayor Nutter announced that he was handing over a section of Schuylkill Banks park to the amphibious tour operator Ride the Ducks, his administration now says it plans to seek competing proposals from other companies and will consider moving a controversial access ramp.

Administration officials said they reversed course after they belatedly realized that state law requires any concession on city-owned land to be competitively bid. According to Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy, a request for proposals will be posted on the city website by Tuesday.

The new process opens up the possibility that a different duck boat operator might propose an alternative launch site, one that does not encroach on the Schuylkill Banks, a popular recreation path. For that reason, the bidding instructions do not specify a location for the boat ramp, Managing Director Richard Negrin said.

"I think there are places on the west side where they [tour boats] might enter," he added.

Ride the Ducks began looking to move its operation to the Schuylkill this summer after one of its boats collided with a tugboat, killing two tourists, on the heavily trafficked Delaware River, where the company had operated since 2002. While the causes of that July 7 accident are still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and several lawsuits are pending, the Ducks operator now sees the Schuylkill as a safer, less-congested option.

But, as the company soon learned, getting down to the Schuylkill is considerably more difficult than slipping into the Delaware. Rail lines and highways block the water in areas most convenient to connecting with Center City. Although there are several duck boat companies in the United States, it is unclear whether they would want to deal with such a difficult landscape.

Until the city announced plans to open the concession to competitive bidding, Ride the Ducks had been working intensively with Abernathy to finalize a route down to the river through a wooded glade at the Schuylkill Banks' north entrance, just off Martin Luther King Drive.

Abernathy and the Ducks had both refused to disclose the route's details in interviews last month, but The Inquirer recently obtained a copy of the proposal, along with a conceptual map.

It shows that Ride the Ducks had been considering building a sloped trench through the glade, just east of the park's entrance. Very likely, the Ducks would have had to raise the height of the park's asphalt recreation path to allow the trench to angle below it and continue down to the river, which sits about 20 feet below the bank.

The Ducks plan also would have resulted in a dramatic change on King Drive.

If the Schuylkill became its home river, Ride the Ducks planned to run its tour boats crosstown from Independence Mall to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. After pointing out the cultural sites, the bus-sized boats were to loop around Eakins Oval and proceed west on King Drive. To reach the glade, the Ducks suggested that a new U-turn be carved into a traffic island separating the east- and west-bound sides of the drive.

After the rough outlines of the Ducks' concept plan became public last month, Abernathy argued that the glade was the only convenient spot along the lower Schuylkill where the tour boats could access the river.

The Ducks seemed so confident that their scheme would win favor that they hired an engineer, Duffield Associates, to work out the design details. They also amended their website to inform visitors that "splashdown" on the Schuylkill would begin in March.

Now the city appears to have modified its intentions.

In an interview last week, Negrin conceded that there may be several spots along the river where duck boats could enter the water without disturbing the park, which connects with the Kelly Drive path.

"We're proud of this park," Negrin emphasized, adding that no final decisions about the route would be made without community input.

According to Negrin, the city never had any intention of handing the concession to Ride the Ducks.

"The city never announced they [the Ducks] were going to Schuylkill. What we announced was that we would look at the options," he argued. That map, he said, "is just a proposal."

His account differs, however, from the impression given in the city's own news release. On Sept. 29, the city and Ride the Ducks issued a joint statement announcing that the company would move its operation to the Schuylkill.

After stating that the company's safety protocols had been "reaffirmed" by the Coast Guard, the release quoted Mayor Nutter as saying, "I am pleased the Ducks will resume operations on the Schuylkill River."

The mayor's quote continued, "I believe this route will offer an interesting tour experience for Philadelphia visitors and residents."

After the joint statement became public, Jonathan Bari, who runs a competing company, the Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia, filed a Right to Know request in an attempt to learn the city's intentions. He received a package of documents relating to the city's discussions with the Duck operator, including the map showing the location of the proposed trench.

Bari, who has filed a lawsuit claiming that the Independence Visitor Center gave preferential treatment to his competitors, also obtained a lengthy e-mail exchange between city officials and Ride the Ducks. Several of those e-mails are devoted to the Sept. 29 news release. They indicate that Ride the Ducks officials pretty much wrote the statement.

At one point, the company's vice president and director of marketing, Bob Salmon, even offered to craft the mayor's quote himself, although he then added, "This is something you may want to write."

In an interview Monday, Salmon said he could not remember who wrote the news release or provided the mayor's quote.

Abernathy says the confusion relating to the city's arrangement with Ride the Ducks is attributable to "a miscommunication on our end. I made a mistake."

Salmon said he was not disappointed by the city's decision to open the concession to public bidding.

"Clearly, when we first started having conversations with the city, we did not realize there would be an RFP [request for proposals] process," he said. "We will abide by the rules."

Despite the city's decision to open the process to competitive bidding, Bari said he wasn't satisfied. "I see lots and lots of problems," he said, "and there has never been one hearing about any of this."

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.


Posted Sunday, November 7, 2010, Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
Duck boat plan sinks

The Nutter administration has laid an egg with a plan to allow Ride the Ducks tour boats to invade the Schuylkill River.

Let’s start by acknowledging there are no ideal options for the Duck tours, in the aftermath of the collision with a barge in July in the Delaware River that killed two tourists. The boats could not be allowed back on the Delaware, with its heavy ship traffic.
 
The Delaware did have advantages. It’s not far from the location where tourists pick up the ride at the Independence Visitors Center on Sixth Street. And the vehicles gained easy access to the river via an unobtrusive ramp at the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge.
 
But now the city has given the go-head for Ride the Ducks to cruise on the Schuylkill River next spring. The drawbacks of this plan outweigh the advantages.
 
The Schuylkill is a safer place for the boats, and the scenery is lovely. From a boat, views of the Waterworks and the Center City skyline would give tourists a perspective that even some city residents fail to appreciate.
 
The non-profit Schuylkill Banks organization has worked hard to create a jewel of trails and parkland along the river. The more people who discover this hidden oasis, the better.
 
But visiting the banks of the Schuylkill on foot or by bike is not the same as launching a tour boat into the river. The Ducks require a ramp sloped gentler than the grade of the riverbank. That means digging a large trench beneath the bike trail so the boats could access the river.
 
Plans are not final, but the construction of this trench would likely mar the landscape downriver from the Art Museum, just off Martin Luther King Drive. It also might require fencing to safeguard pedestrians and bicyclists above it. Ride the Ducks would pay for the work.
 
The Schuylkill River Development Corp. says the plan could work if it’s done right. But the SRDC doesn’t have the final say.
 
There’s also the impracticality of driving the tour vehicles all the way across Center City, from Independence Mall to the Art Museum. In the past, the vehicles focused on sights from South Street to Old City. Now the tentative plan is to drive more than 20 blocks across town — 60 vehicle trips per day in peak season — just to reach the water for a roughly 10-minute cruise.
 
Ride the Ducks is popular with tourists. But it’s difficult to imagine that the city would attract fewer tourists if the boats weren’t available. The potential loss of revenue for the city isn’t worth the added disruptions. Another water attraction could be better.
 
Posted by Inquirer editorial board @ 12:30 AM


Posted on Fri, Oct. 29, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer
Changing Skyline: Duck boats pose a threat to Schuylkill Banks

The most transformational project that Philadelphia built in the last decade wasn't a museum or a skyscraper, but the skinny, mile-long strip of plain asphalt that hugs the Schuylkill in Center City. On a crisp fall day, you can find runners from Penn, fishermen from Grays Ferry, and yoga devotees from Fitler Square jostled together on the 12-foot-wide recreation path, drawn by big-sky views of the sparkling river.

If Schuylkill Banks isn't an urban success story, I don't know what is.

That success is now under threat from two intrusions aimed at tourists, including a hasty plan that would allow a private company's amphibious duck boats to use the park to access the river.

Barely three months have passed since a Ride the Ducks tour boat's fatal collision on the Delaware River, yet the Nutter administration has already given the company a green light to dig a massive open-air trench through a glade at the north end of Schuylkill Banks, just off Martin Luther King Drive. The trench would slope under the trail to allow the duck boats to descend to the river.

Come spring, Ride the Ducks officials expect to start running 60 boatloads of quacking tourists through the park each day. The company is so confident of winning approval for its access road, the recording on its reservation line urges people to join in a "new sightseeing adventure on the Schuylkill" beginning March 5. Let's hope federal safety officials have determined the cause of the Delaware collision by then.

The second intrusion isn't as destructive as an invasion of duck boats, but it, too, would alter the park's easygoing ambience.

A group of private activists is promoting a plan for a giant water screen and fountains in the middle of the tidal river. Inspired by a Las Vegas attraction, the big sprays of water might be described as an ephemeral billboard, and would serve as a backdrop for video art and images of city attractions. The backers already have secured promises of $2 million in state money for the project, called Water Magic, and support letters from a half-dozen city leaders.

As dissimilar as the two projects are, each would profoundly change the character of the waterfront park, shifting it from a residential amenity to a tourist attraction with moneymaking potential.

Nothing is wrong with encouraging out-of-towners to visit the Schuylkill's grassy banks. But in its eagerness to accommodate the tourist-centric projects, the Nutter administration appears to have been blinded by dollar signs from tourism.

What's wrong with letting a park just be a park?

The real value of Schuylkill Banks is that it provides the kind of social space that today's urbanites crave. The 1.2-mile park, which has its own administrative agency, is important because it extends Kelly Drive's range of activities right into Philadelphia's densely populated heart.

Few cities can boast such convenience. The trail is a short jog from downtown offices, West Philadelphia universities, and a tapestry of neighborhoods - making it both a commuter route and a leisure destination. Mayor Nutter deserves credit for weaving the park into the city's bike network with new crosstown bike lanes on Spruce and Pine Streets. As technology gives people more flexibility to choose where they live, amenities like the park help make Philadelphia a more competitive option.

But the allure of the park itself will surely diminish once bus-size duck boats start rumbling through the trees.

Neither Ride the Ducks' vice president, Robert Salmon, nor the city's deputy managing director, Brian Abernathy, would agree to release the proposed road alignment, explaining that the company was still working out the engineering details with a consultant. But based on interviews with three people who have seen the scheme, it sounds like many key decisions already have been made.

Early on, the city agreed that the duck boats would ply the lower Schuylkill, below the Water Works dam, because there is too much sculling activity on the upper portion. The problem is that train tracks and highways on both sides of the river form a substantial barrier for the boats - at least along the portion of the river convenient to Center City.

In fact, Abernathy insists, the only Center City entry point that is not blocked by rail tracks is the triangle of land immediately east of the pergola on King Drive. This gateway is where the park broadens out toward Eakins Oval. Years ago, the administration of then-Mayor John F. Street set aside the triangle for skateboarders, who have just amended their design to accommodate the duck boats.

But before the ducks came into the picture, the Schuylkill River Development Corp. saw the area as the park's front door. It built the pergola as a trailhead to welcome people to the park. The area has evolved into a major hub, a gathering place for parades and group events.

This crowded spot could soon be the place where the lumbering duck boats make a right turn to enter the park. Since the river is 20 feet below the level of the path, the ducks will have to find a way to get down to the bank. The working plan suggests embedding the access road in a sloping trench, to separate the vehicles from park users.

The trench, which would be paid for by Ride the Ducks, would run under the park's asphalt trail on its way down to the water. But it's too soon to know whether the trail would remain flat, or whether the duck boats would need so much overhead clearance that the company would have to raise the path with a footbridge over the open cut.

Constructing the trench would be easy. But camouflaging it is another matter. The gentler the angle of the slope, the longer the trench's approach. Joseph Syrnick, the park's director, said the access road may have to run parallel to the path for some distance before tunneling into the bluff.

To prevent park users from falling into the trench, it would no doubt have to be fenced and lighted. The trench's roadbed is expected to be the width of a car lane, about 10 feet. But since the trench's earthen walls would slope, the opening at the level of the park could be 20 feet wide.

In the midst of the green landscape, such an open cut couldn't help but look like the entrance to a parking garage.

These are just a few of the land-based issues raised by the ducks' move to the Schuylkill. What happens when the clumsy vehicles plop into the river, which is increasingly populated by kayaks and other small craft? How will runners and bicyclists on the trail respond to the attraction's signature quacking?

Since Ride the Ducks intends to keep its home base on Independence Mall, what happens if the vehicles become snarled in crosstown traffic as they travel up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with special quacks for the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art? And who will supervise the trench construction in the park - Ride the Ducks or the city?

Abernathy assured me that the final design for the ducks' access ramp would be presented to neighborhood groups and approved by City Council. But that just means stakeholders get to argue about the details. Moving the ducks to the Schuylkill Banks is already a done deal.

No doubt, the success of the park since its opening in 2004 took the city by surprise. Plans for the project sat on a shelf for more than four decades before waterfront activist John Randolph nudged the Street administration into action.

Now that the public has embraced the trail, Randolph seems intent on gilding the lily. Along with another activist, Rob Stuart, he is promoting the plan for Water Magic, the giant water spray that would serve as a screen for videos. They say that the content would be artful and not commercial, and that the videos would be chosen by experts.

The screen, installed on a barge, would be the first phase of a larger project that would include 20 fountains running down the midline of the river between Market and South Streets. The fountains would be programmed and lighted for an elaborate water ballet that the pair say would attract droves of tourists. The added benefit is that the sound of water would mitigate noise from the expressway.

Maybe so. But don't we have enough screens in our lives? A park is the one place where people can go to escape the relentless assault of images.

Before parks became just another draw for tourists, cities valued them as a way to soothe the rough edges of urban life. Tourists, after all, come and go. What cities need are residents who are here for the long term.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.


Posted on Thu, Oct. 28, 2010, Philadelphia Inquirer
New Schuylkill route for Ride the Ducks poses many challenges

By Miriam Hill

Tourist duck boats may return to Philadelphia, but only if the company that operates them gets approval from several agencies to build a ramp near a popular recreation path along the Schuylkill.

Ride the Ducks, which operates the amphibious vehicles, remains confident of its new route, developed after a July 7 accident on the Delaware River that killed two young Hungarian tourists, but the proposed location presents several challenges.

Most significant is the likely disruption to the riverfront path, which has become so popular that over the summer people used it for about 2,200 trips daily. Ride the Ducks says it will build and pay for a trench under the path.

Bob Salmon, vice president of marketing and sales for Ride the Ducks, said he believed the company could devise a detour during construction to minimize disruption on the path.

Drexel University engineering professor Patricia Gallagher said, "It's a heavily used path. There could be a lot of public outcry."

Excavation of the trench, expected to be completed by March, is likely to be costly. One expert put the price tag at more than $1 million. And devising a route that would allow the duck vehicles to navigate a steep riverbank in a small amount of space poses Tetris-like engineering challenges.

Company and city officials say they have yet to decide the ducks' exact route, which would start in Old City, proceed to the Parkway, and leave the street somewhere near Eakins Oval to head down to the riverbank.

The ducks would enter the river at Schuylkill Banks Park near Martin Luther King Drive in an area that is now muddy shoreline, Salmon said.

The company plans to build a bridge "so that the bikers and runners can go over the ramp" that will take the ducks from the street into the Schuylkill, he said.

It recently hired Duffield Associates, a Wilmington engineering firm, to oversee design and construction. Ride the Ducks says it is not sure when digging will begin, but it wants to have its boats on the water by March.

City Council will hold a public hearing on the plan, and the Parks and Recreation, Streets, and Planning Departments will review the project.

Nutter administration officials have expressed strong support for the proposal.

"I happen to think that this is what's best for the city overall," Managing Director Richard Negrin said. "I also think the Schuylkill is a more attractive, better option from the business aspect. It's more picturesque."

Joseph Syrnick, an engineer who worked for the city and helped design Schuylkill Banks Park before becoming president of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., supports the plan but said it wouldn't be easy.

"There is a lot of work they need to do engineering-wise," he said. In addition to enabling the ducks to negotiate a steep grade, the design must ensure that the boats can enter the water at low tide, he said.

The route also must not disrupt the park's verdant aesthetic, he added. The company will have to conceal the trench walls with plants or other cover, he said.

Digging won't be cheap.

"A million dollars at least," Syrnick said.

Ride the Ducks has not shied away from spending money. Its Delaware River ramp cost about $585,000 eight years ago but did not involve tunneling under a path at a potentially steep grade.

"I think there is a great opportunity here, but I also think that they have a lot of work to do probably to satisfy the city," Syrnick said. "If it's done right, I think it could be kind of cool."

The ducks will not travel near the CSX Corp. train tracks in the area, Salmon and a CSX spokesman said.

The new route would include views of Old City, City Hall, and the museums along the Parkway. Ride the Ducks said passengers would have views of Center City from the river.

Engineering a tunnel under a path for a big boat in an area that sometimes floods is not Ride the Ducks' sole hurdle.

The U.S. Coast Guard still must sign off on the boats' 20-minute water route.

The Coast Guard also awaits results of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the July 7 accident. If those results, which are not expected until next year, determine that the duck-boat design contributed to the passengers' deaths, it could request changes to the vessels or deem them unsafe and bar them from the water.

Lawyers for the accident victims have argued that the boats' canopies prevent passengers from escaping in the event of a sinking. Salmon has said the boats exceed Coast Guard safety regulations regarding canopies.

He also said that the barge involved in the accident was responsible and that he believed the canopy "protected passengers from what would have been a devastating direct impact."

Coast Guard Lt. Michael Patterson said his agency wanted to see the NTSB report so it can have "the best information" to make a responsible decision.

The company also will have to get construction and other permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the city, processes that take three to four months.

Jonathan Bari, who runs the Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia and who has complained that the city has favored Ride the Ducks over other tour operators, said he thought the city should put the business opportunity up for competitive bid. Ride the Ducks hopes to have exclusive access to its Schuylkill ramp, as it had on the Delaware.

"For a city strapped on resources and cash, if it's really a valuable piece of property, it should be bid out," Bari said.

Brian Abernathy, who works for Negrin, said putting the project out to bid wouldn't make sense. Ride the Ducks is a unique aquatic tour, he said, and it has been operating here for many years.

Abernathy said the public will get a chance to give its input. City Council would have to pass an ordinance approving the right-of-way for the entrance to the Schuylkill, he said, which will require a public hearing.

"The city, the community, and other users have a number of concerns that must be resolved before a proposal is finalized," Abernathy said.

Russell Meddin, co-coordinator of the Schuylkill River Park Alliance, an advocacy group, said he thought the move to the Schuylkill could create good opportunities for the city.

"Something that affects the trail is a major concern of ours, but from the conversations that we had, it seems like this is a win-win for many organizations who use the trail and want to see increased usage of the Schuylkill River," he said.

On July 7, a K-Sea Transportation Partners tug pushing a barge owned by the city crashed into a duck boat, killing Hungarian tourists Szabolcs Prem, 20, and Dora Schwendtner, 16.

The duck boat had stopped on the Delaware after its captain saw smoke coming from the engine. Capt. Gary Fox radioed for help and issued warnings over marine channels, saying he had no power. He also asked the tug to change course.

The tug's first mate was at the helm. He has refused to be interviewed by the NTSB.

Salmon said busy commercial traffic on the Delaware did not affect the company's decision to move to the Schuylkill.

The Schuylkill River Development Corp. operates a boat that gives river tours on certain days from June through October, but Syrnick said he did not think the ducks would interfere with that.

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or hillmb@phillynews.com.