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Why Are There No Water Taxis On The Milwaukee River?

The downtown Milwaukee River bustles these summer days with boaters and kayakers and cruises, while people on shore sit at the cafes. It would have been difficult to imagine a few decades ago, when the river was still largely an industrial dumping ground, but things started to change when the city developed the Riverwalk. It now spans miles. Yet one small part of the dream has not taken hold - the creation of river taxis. Signs are posted, but no taxis.

Jake Chianelli’s company, Milwaukee Boat Line, provides entertainment cruises that use the Milwaukee River. He says he’s watched the activities here grow significantly, for example people using kayaks and sitting on the many patios that now line the waterway. So why no river taxis?

“We’ve thought about it but have never gone that far,” Chianelli says.

River taxis are small boats that shuttle people across the water. Other cities with busy riverfronts use them – like Chicago.

"It’s just, the utilitarian benefit to a water taxi, I think, is still a bit dubious. It’s just frankly still a little bit too easy to drive and park to destinations downtown or the lakefront or the east side,” Chianelli says.

And he says, there are still obstacles to taxis on the Milwaukee River. "As we sit here between two giant parking ramps that were built here in the 1960s when that’s what it was thought the future of the riverfront was going to be used for. We’re still, maybe, in the transition period,” Chianelli says.

“When we first began installing river walk segments, it was always contemplated that there would be a river or water taxi service,” says Alyssa Remington. She is an economic development specialist for the City of Milwaukee.

"So these (River Taxi Landing) signs were created 25 years ago and then located wherever were public docks so that there would be a known stop for a water taxi," she explains.

"There are some complicated issues associated with getting that kind of business off the ground, mostly as they deal with insurance and liability," Remington says. "It’s possible one of the existing water cruises – if they took it on, but from what I’ve heard, it’s too cost-prohibitive for a small business to take it."

Credit Marge Pitrof
Milwaukee put up river taxi signs more than two decades ago.

So, we asked people along the river walk downtown if they saw any use for a taxi system along the river.

Rita Demerit and Mitchell Henke said they could see it. “I guess I don’t know why they wouldn’t. We have a lot of rivers; we could take it from Bay View even up to downtown,” Henke says.

“Probably lack of interest or funding,” Demerit guesses. "(But) we do have three major rivers and we could take them from home to work. So yes, sure, if it made financial sense.”

The city’s Alyssa Remington says it is possible there could be water taxis in the future, but organizers would have to work out a few things first, such as the insurance. Yet she sees how interest in using the water has grown over the past couple decades.

“With the kayaks and canoes and the three different river cruise lines was not something that they contemplated and it’s far greater and better than we could have hoped for,” she says.

Cruise line owner Jake Chianelli  says he hopes the city continues developing its riverfront.

“As a boat owner but also a bicyclist and a person who walks a lot of places, I would be in favor of increasing access and safety of pedestrians and bicyclists and having people drive a little bit less downtown. I’d love there to be a river taxi,” he says.

Yet Chianelli says other things around the city would likely have to change first. "There are big, huge structures that are going to be quite involved to take down, but back in the '60s the river was extremely polluted, folks really couldn’t even imagine this being in any way, shape or form a recreational destination,” Chianelli says.

For now, the public docks along the Milwaukee River will simply hold the water taxi signs created 25 years ago.

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