City Council unanimously agreed Thursday to purchase a new fleet of barges that will traverse the downtown and Museum reaches of the San Antonio River.

The 43 barges will be built by Lake Assault Boats, LLC in Wisconsin under a $6.5 million contract with the City. Houston-based design firm Metalab, which received a $400,000 contract last year after its design for the new barge won an international competition, was awarded an additional $55,000 to work out final modifications to the barges. Lake Assault was one of four manufacturers that applied for the contract.

Now that he prototype has spent almost six months on the water, City staff and designers have received plenty of feedback on how to further improve the design.

“This is a prototype,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), an architect whose district includes downtown. Treviño led the initiative for the City to host the unique international design competition in partnership with the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “We expect there to be some things to look at and issues that we’ll need to correct,” he said.

A beta version of the barge will be manufactured and on the river by February 2017 to make sure the final design performs as it should and manufacturers can make last-minute tweaks, if necessary. The full fleet should be on the river by late fall 2017 – just in time for the City’s 2018 Tricentennial celebrations.

The new barges will feature all-electric (and relatively quiet) motors, removable and customizable seating and side panel arrangements. They will be ADA accessible and more durable than the current barges, most of which were built in 1995 and modeled after the original HemisFair design.

Some of the suggested improvements include:

  • Working with motor manufacturers to fix a high-pitched whine that occurs when the barge is moving quickly with a lot of passengers;
  • Adding a lip or closing the gap between the base and side panels to avoid water coming in or belongings rolling out;
  • Lowering the height of the barge by about four inches and widening slightly to improve stability;
  • Increasing on-board electrical capacity to support lighting and speakers or finding a portable battery option;
  • Finding a way to smooth out the platform when chairs are removed (currently, the bolts that stick out are a tripping hazard).

The new barges are a “21st century way to welcome 21st century visitors to San Antonio,” Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said .

The barges will be owned by the City and operated by a private company. The City is currently accepting applications from operators looking to sign a 10-year contract with the City. The old barges have been owned and operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises for 13 years.

Iris Dimmick

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