While the 3-month-old prototype glides over the San Antonio River this winter, the beta version of San Antonio’s new river barge is being constructed in Wisconsin.

The craft will launch this February with several design and engineering adjustments, most of which will not be immediately apparent to the average passenger.

“There’s a lot of discovery in the design process,” Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said Wednesday as one of several low-slung River Walk bridges threatened to graze the heads of the standing barge pilots.

The hull will be three to four inches lower and about one foot wider, the electric motor will be quieter, the railing will be sturdier, and several other adjustments will be made to avoid future need for the “splash zone” tape placed at the bow of the prototype. When filled with passengers, designers noticed that the barge was a bit nose-heavy, causing some water to splash inside.

A "splash zone" has been taped off on the prototype barge.
A “splash zone” has been taped off on the prototype barge. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Initial project estimates from the City put $45,000-$60,000 price tags on each barge with a maximum $4 million contract. City Council unanimously approved a $6.5 million contract last month with Wisconsin-based Lake Assault Boats, LLC for 43 barges. That’s about $150,000 per barge.

Well worth it, Treviño said, because the materials and the versatility of the design will last decades.

The cost of the barges and maintenance will eventually be paid for by the leasing fees that the City will collect from the private operator.

Houston-based design firm Metalab won a design competition and a $400,000 contract last year. Rio San Antonio Cruises owns and operates the old barges, most of which were built in 1995 and modeled after the HemisFair design. The City is currently accepting applications from operators. The deadline to apply has been extended to Jan. 20. City Council is expected to consider the contract in March, and the new fleet is slated to be in the water this fall, in time for the city’s Tricentennial celebrations in 2018.

“Every bit of this (design) is being thought out,” said Treviño, who is an architect by trade and led the initial design competition effort with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the higher-than-expected upfront costs of the new river barge design will pay off in the long run.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the higher-than-expected upfront costs of the new river barge design will pay off in the long run.

The competition for the new contract allows the city to respond to needs, he said. “We asked for several things in the previous (barge contract request for proposals) and we didn’t get it.”

The city scrapped proposals in 2015 which didn’t include electric motors and instead split the contracts for design and operation.

“This is a model for how we need to do many other things,” Treviño said of the design competition, adding that it got rid of some bureaucratic “red tape” and allowed for a “platform for discovery.”

City staff and members of the design and manufacturing teams have spent the past three months testing out the prototype to make the beta, well, better.

“I lived on this thing in August,” quipped Scott Key, director of product design for Metalab. Key estimates he spent nearly six hours a day on the barge when it first launched, listening to passenger feedback and looking for modifications.

Metalab Principal Joe Meppelink pointed out several kinks in the design as we floated down the river, from the uncomfortable “ridges” meant to cradle passengers’ legs that will be removed to the bolts on the ground that stick out when the seats are removed.

“It helps that the designer (Metalab team) is still on board,” said John Jacks, interim director of the Center City Development & Operations Department. The engineering and design adjustments for the beta version are made “much easier” when there is more expertise at the table.

So far the barge has hosted a small symphony performance, buskers, and cocktail and beer cruises, and the team is looking forward to more creative programming ideas that could be initiated by the operator or by those looking to charter the crafts for special events.

The local hospitality industry is looking for ways to incorporate new dinner cruises and tours, Jacks said, and other small businesses have reached out with other ideas – yoga classes and pet adoption events among them.

Treviño wants to find an operator and approve a contract that can be “just as flexible, just as modular” as the barge itself, to encourage such creativity. Almost everything on top of the barge can be removed, save for the helm, allowing for several different seating, table, and space arrangements.

About 35 boats can comfortably navigate the River Walk and Museum Reach at a time. The extra barges will be on standby for when repairs or routine maintenance is needed.

Casa Rio from E. Commerce Street Bridge. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Barges traverse the River Walk in front of Casa Rio from the East Commerce Street bridge. These crafts will soon be replaced with new models. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org