Sep 252015

sightseeing cartoon key west 800 wide

Naja and Arnaud Girard…….

As the “Conch Train” slows down at the corner of Eaton and Elizabeth, the conductor blows the whistle. The train’s blaring PA system floods the street:

“That’s right folks, you just made it to the top. Key West’s highest point, Solaris Hill! 18 Feet above sea level! That’s where you would want to be in a hurricane!” Resident Bob Sanders says he hears that pitch over and over, all day long.

There have been many other complaints about sightseeing busses, trolleys, and trains in Key West. Some say they’re too slow and impede traffic; they’re too loud and historically inaccurate [Solaris Hill is not on Eaton Street]. Others claim there are too many of them; they are too big. There is even a song by a local band proclaiming “The streets are too small for the Duck Tours , please!”

A new ordinance is needed to “protect the quality of life of residents while allowing competitive commerce,” wrote Commissioner Teri Johnston in 2009, about the growing number of sightseeing vehicles in Key West.

The time to renegotiate with sightseeing companies has finally come. Temporary extensions aside, all sightseeing franchise agreements expired in February 2015, including the 20-year old Historic Tours of America’s Conch Tour Train and Trolley franchise agreement.

ramon navarro

Key West’s first tour operator was Ramon Navarro. He had an old beat up clunker but it was all the rage as Navarro’s dog Teddy would sit on the roof during rides, shaded by his own personal umbrella.  Photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,  (circa 1940)

The City Commission will decide on new regulations on September 30th. The City is treading carefully – especially where “Duck Tours” are concerned, the first encounter with the amphibious vehicles spelled financial disaster – that was in the 1990’s.

All sightseeing business in Key West at the time was under the control of HTA and local businessman Ed Swift. Enter “Duck Tours Seafari” offering a ride through the City Streets before splashing into the harbor. The Blue Paper at that time had a headline: “Ed! Duck!” But Ed Swift didn’t duck!

Duck Tours, the new company, was directly threatening HTA’s monopoly. Mr. Swift went straight to the City Commission asking for enforcement of his exclusive franchise rights. “We are partners,” Ed Scales, Swift’s attorney, told them.

The City makes over $400,000/year from the HTA franchise agreement. The Commission did move to protect their “partner” but they went a little bit too far. They criminalized infringement of the sightseeing monopoly, and sent their police to arrest the Duck Tour captains and impound their vehicles.

In a closed-door meeting, they directed then City Attorney, Diane Covan, to “grind them (Duck Tours) into the dirt.” John Murphy’s Duck Tours Seafari sued under antitrust laws and won a 13 million dollar verdict. The City settled during the appeal process for 8 million in 2010.

There are now two applicants for sightseeing franchise agreements: City View, which took over Duck Tours Seafari, and Historic Tours of America/Buggy Bus, Inc. (HTA). Both City View and HTA hoped to launch lucrative amphibious vehicle (Duck Tour) operations, but the Navy took back the boat ramp they planned on using at the Truman Waterfront.

Both companies are also fighting the franchise ordinance drafted by the City.

For those residents who no longer want to be stuck behind the Conch Train moving below 15 mph on Fleming Street or White Street, the new ordinance, (which made it through the Commissions’ first reading) makes the following provision: “No operator of a sightseeing vehicle (…) shall drive at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic. The route should avoid residential side streets.” But HTA wants the word “impede” removed, the tour vehicles would only be in trouble if they “block” traffic. That would mean another 10 years at 12 mph behind a Conch Train.

HTA and City View both dislike a provision that limits the passage of tour vehicles to one per hour on residential side streets.

The Commission also approved a provision that prohibits any sound (narration) from being audible from outside the vehicles. The idea is that passengers could be accessing the narrative using headphones or through the use of Bluetooth technology and their smart phones.   But the tour companies find the requirement impractical and want only to discuss “sound reduction plans” at a later time with the City Manager.

Finally the ordinance doesn’t prohibit the new oversized HTA Ducks, which are 40′ long and almost 12 feet high, from riding up and down Key West’s streets; requiring only (vaguely) that they take the largest and safest streets “possible.”

The total number of vehicles is not fixed. HTA currently has 39 tour vehicles. City View suggests letting the “market control how many vehicles are necessary.” It will be interesting to see how much traction that “free market” argument receives on the dias when it concerns these large sightseeing companies considering how the City has dealt with the same issue when it comes to independent Uber drivers.

The franchisees will be required to have 10 million dollars in insurance coverage and will pay the City $7,500 per vehicle or 5% of the gross receipts, whichever is greater. The tour companies oppose logging their passengers, which seems the best way to audit those payments. City View opposes the 10 million dollar insurance requirement. However, after a Duck Tour vehicle’s catastrophic capsizing on the Delaware River in 2010, the death of two passengers was settled for 15 Million dollars and the Duck Tour vehicle that crashed into a tour bus yesterday in Seattle caused 4 deaths and multiple injuries.

A prudent City Commission will need to balance the quality of life issues with the realities of commerce.  The second and final reading of the ordinance is set for a September 30, 2015 City Commission meeting.

Photo: Seattle Fire Department

Duck Tour Crash September 24, 2015, Seattle, Washington Photo: Seattle Fire Department



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 September 25, 2015  Posted by at 12:40 am * Featured Story *, Naja and Arnaud Girard  Add comments

  17 Responses to “Tour Companies and City Spar Over Sightseeing Franchise Agreements”

  1. Thanks for an educational article! I had no idea there were so many Ducks! I also enjoyed Arnaud;s cartoon (as always) and the cool photo of the 1940s tour limo!

  2. The Duck Tour crash in Seattle was the lead story on Good Morning America. I believe the tour train drivers should face the same requirements for licensing as the taxi drivers in Key West, tests, doctor exams, city occupational license, etc, etc.

    • Trolley and Train drivers must meet the same standards as truck drivers. They must possess a CDL and have regular physicals to maintain their licenses. They have more requirements than a tax driver.

  3. I bumped into utility board candidate Tom Milone on the sidewalk yesterday. He has run for the utility board before, and for the city commission twice, and sits on the city’s Citizen Police Review Board, where he rocks the boat. He also attends city commission meeting pretty regularly. I asked him how the recent city commission meeting went for him? He said the rich people will get what they want. The mayor and city commissioners spent their time talking about what the two tour companies’ representatives were saying, and did not talk about what the citizen speakers said. He said I could quote him.

    Perhaps this ex-practicing lawyer has his head where the sun never shines, but I imagine it would be legal for the city to restrict Historic Tours and CitiWiew’s behemoths, and the ducks, to main streets and keep them out of residential neighborhoods altogether; and I think it also would be legal to ban the behemoths from Key West altogether, because they cause traffic jams ongoing, break the sound barrier with their noise ongong, and cause relentless psychic stress in residential neighborhoods, as well – quality of life and public safety trumps tour vehicles on city streets, or at least on residential city streets.

    Meanwhile, the city pays HTA maybe $600,000 a year to ferry cruise ship passengers from the outer mole pier in to HTS’s gift shops and conch train and trolley terminals, where the cruise ship passengers shop for made in Asia authentic Key West souvenirs and buy tickets for conch train and trolley rides around the city, while the city loses money on cruise ships overall.

    Aruand, I love the “cartoon”, especially the elephant ride, but I imagine camel, horse and donkey lovers wish you had been more “one animal family” :-).

    • P.S. Jimmy Weekly was on the city commission which approved the then city attorney, Diane Covan, grinding Duck Tours into dirt. Later, Jimmy served several terms as mayor, before he was beaten by Morgan McPherson in 2005, and again in 2007. Later, Jimmy ran for city commission and was elected and has been a city commissioner ever since.

    • I was told by a City Commissioner that the last time the city did the contract with HTA to pick up cruisies from the outer mole (I think the contract may be slightly less than $600K but it is close) that HTA REFUSED to drop the cruisies anywhere but THEIR shops!!! HTA knows they are the biggest and only ones capable of transporting the amount of passengers necessary. Bullies. I saw let’s go shopping for someone else or another solution to the problem. I recall Mark Rossi once suggesting we drop them at the Navy gate and let them find their way into town. Maybe they could work-off some of those cruise calories! Maybe bicycle or electric car rental at the Navy gate with a percentage going to the city. Maybe no cruise ships at the outer mole then no trolleys and conch trains would be traversing our tranquil, peaceful upcoming park. Will we not even be able to go to our green ‘central park’ and get away from Conch trains and tour vehicles!!! The city needs to look at other alternatives than using and paying HTA these huge amounts of money. They are laughing all the way to the bank.

  4. The KW City Commission is a microcosm of the larger bodies of governance in neo-liberal America. Money beats the people’s needs and wishes every bloody time. Representative government, my ass.

  5. These mammoth DUCKS can NOT be allowed on our streets. Our small streets were designed for horse and buggys – NOT buggy buses! This has to come down to more than a consideration of PROFITS for 2 companies. The bottom line has to be SAFETY.
    The safety of locals walking and riding bikes to work and social happenings ,AND the safety of millions of tourists a year who come to enjoy Key West, many who may be riding a bicycle for the first time in years on one of our very small streets, they may have had a cocktail or two, and we all see them rubbernecking at our beautiful architecture, chickens and other colorful components of life in Key West! We do not want any of there people mowed down by a massive over-sized DUCK! Not one! Philadelphia has had 3 deaths, the death of a pedestrian was not mentioned in TBP article, and now yesterday a DUCK goes out of control and has killed 4 so far.

    As far as liability is concerned – the city has good reason to be concerned and ask for a $10M liability policy by these companies. How much is a life worth? Is you life worth $1M? $5M? And how much for 4 lives as happened yesterday in Seattle? But here is my concern: If the city does not put parameters on the size of DUCKS or limit DUCKS in some major way – will the city ALSO BE LIABLE in future deaths from DUCKS? In the $13M verdict, negotiated down to $8M – WE SAW HTA WALK AWAY LEAVING THE CITY HOLDING THE BAG TO PAY, while they did a back room deal for an undisclosed amount – you can bet it was NOT $8M or anything even close?

    2 tour companies WANT certain concessions and specific components of the existing Ordinance removed or changed. That’s 2 FOR PROFIT companies. What about what the hundreds/thousands of residents WANT concerning noise, safety and quality of life. So often what our citizens WANT are put second behind tourism, does what we want also now have to line up behind CORPORATIONS ans PROFIT? And what about what the millions of tourists WANT (and EXPECT!) who come to enjoy Key West in terms of their safety? This can NOT be about PROFIT. Safety and quality of life MUST trump the greed driven profits of 2 companies. Organizations should NOT be considered people in Key WEST.

  6. Hate and resentment aren’t strong enough words to express how I feel about residential streets being subjected to this enterprise. My block-long, one-way lane empties only onto Margaret St. where there are nine business in the four blocks from Eaton to Truman, where the cemetery already creates a bottleneck at Angela, where every parking space is filled on both sides, even now, in off season, where the pickup trucks that service those business must frequently stop in the traffic lanes,and where it is impossible to share the road with either a trolley or a train, leaving one no option but to pull into someone’s driveway until it passes. Why can’t these vehicles view the cemetery from Frances St. where there is parking on only one side of the street, and no business without off street parking? Is Frances St. home to richer and more powerful people?I suspect so, because Margaret is lined with pickup trucks, the badge of the working stiff renters all along it. And the Ducks! Uglification, disproportion and death. The internet is riddled with deadly Duck accidents as tour vehicles for 25 years! Seattle, Ottawa, Arkansas, Philadelphia and more. Don’t tell me these K.W. Ducks HAD to be permitted. And what is this now too obvious “special relationship” with Jimmy Weekly? He obviously feels obligated for life. There is no historical or architectural feature that will be missed if these misfits are kept off the residential side streets with the exception of Frances. Ditto the damned iguanas and chickens!

  7. Very interesting in how the city only needs 1 million but wants others to carry 10. Even 10 million is not enough. If an accident causes serious injuries to even one person the medical bills and disability could easily reach 10 million. As to the value of a life KW has placed the amount at 900k for Eimers that was clearly murdered by thug cops.

    KW is clearly only after the rich getting richer. Real problem KW has with any business is how much they can tax it. That is why they fight Uber.

    I do agree that such a huge bus like this is too large for streets of KW but the conch train is also far too long for safety. As far as liability I am not sure where any city is liable for the fault of private business. With the amount of bicycle riders and intoxicated people walking the streets it is not a good mix with any large vehicle.

    The hard part here is KW is a tourist town so some tolerance must be made. Me and my wife have been enjoying KW for over 40 years often several times a year and even lived there years ago. We still find new places each visit. Our choice is touring by walking. To not allow any business unless illegal is asking for the city to get sued. Yes make sure vehicles are safe , insured and drivers checked out not only medically but background check. That is something clearly not handled even for city employees.

  8. To protect itself, the City of Key West needs to establish a Transportation Authority or District for all drivers for hire. Semi trucks and trailers should be restricted from the downtown area at certain hours.

  9. I think if the city can legally designate 2 “panhandling zones” in Old Town for homeless people, the city can restrict tour vehicles to major public streets, away from residential neighborhoods.

    • I do agree they should and can restrict certain vehicles from residential streets simply based on congestion and noise. But this should apply equally to all such vehicles and include the Conch train and any bus. If a tourist wants and can afford a private tour then hire a cab or rent a moped and go down any street they care to.
      To be honest a tourist that does his own research on the internet and walk or ride a bike will see far more that way.
      But what I see here is an attempt to not allow others to compete by demanding high insurance rates and fees to make it non profitable. Sure a city can be sued but that is not limited to just vehicles for hire. Should moped rentals be required to carry 10 mil ? They knowing rent to unqualified drivers that often are or will be drinking. Sure set up an insurance standard for a business but make the amount equal for all. That includes everything from T shirt company to bars. The low risk places will find it affordable. And above all others the KWPD sure needs more coverage. They got lucky with Eimers and had that family been told everything they likely would not settled for so little. The city could have found itself owing several million. And had that happened it would been the tax payers picking up the tab.
      Along with any entertainment people should know the risks. If while we hire a ride from a cab and the driver is found at fault and the passenger is seriously hurt to a degree of perhaps 30 days in hospital and several surgeries along with pain and suffering the amount could reach far more than 10 or even 100 million. At some point nobody could afford to run a business and never forget who actually pays the cost of insurance. Yes the consumer pays it.

      Tell me how something as long as a conch train is safe but a 40 foot bus is not. Many people drive motor homes that size. What I see is the inability of a conch train driver to see his last car and what it might hit. If anything perhaps the Conch train needs removed. And often they are far from filled up.

  10. Naja, Another fine article, thanks. When John Murphy was trying to get his Duck business started, I was working for him as a cab driver. I remember having a conversation with him at the time telling him that any attempts to create a monopoly in the tour business was ridiculous and could never pass court scrutiny. I’d like to think I had something to do with him pursuing the law suit he eventually won and we the taxpayers so correctly lost (except for Ed Swift, who owned City Hall at that time). However, that does not mean I do not think the time has come to regulate all of this, something that certainly should be done considering the impact this business has on everyone else. Good stuff, ciao, Jerome

  11. When supply and demand are left alone everything works fine. All that is needed here are some simple laws as to commercial vehicles use of residential roads and any others that are congested because of them. Nothing hard here. Set limits on width , length.

    • Jimmy, Your message is contradictory. I basically agree that this kind of business should pretty much be left to the market … but not completely. This seems to be what you are saying as well. Watch out, you are becoming a socialist. ciao, Post Consumer Man

      • Your reading too much into this. Yes allow tour businesses and for safety reasons license them and check for insurance , health and background. Sure that requires a fee but not to the tune of many thousands of dollars or a limit on how many.
        Regulate what streets they can use.
        Have you ever figured out where about 50% of the fares you collect actually go.? Would not be many empty cabs if the cost was lower. Someone is getting rich but it seldom is the worker. Do hope you have a plan on how to survive KW if you can no longer drive. Not wishing you bad luck but from what I see is you will be driving till the day you die. KW would be a hard town for a family to ever buy a home on the wages it pays. Think of the future of the 18 year olds that graduate from school. Only jobs they will qualify for are $10 an hour.
        Ever watch the live cams in front of Sloppy Joes ? You will see cab after cab. Often 3 or 4 following each other. Cabs are a huge part of the congestion of traffic.

        Don’t take this wrong and we very much so use cabs as we find it cheaper than paying to park and we never drive when drinking. Yes we can afford your high rates and even tip. But your spending $200 just to be able to make a living. Do hope you clear $200 for yourself after 10 hours.

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