Top Image: Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) speaks to Councilmembers about the new river barge designs. Photo by Lea Thompson.

City Council unanimously approved several ordinances concerning the design and construction for the next generation of river barges during A session Thursday morning.

Since the new barge design – created by Houston-based firm Metalab – was named the winner of a City-sponsored international competition in March, city stakeholders have kicked off a rigorous schedule to ensure a new fleet of watercraft is ready to be seen and operated by the City’s Tricentennial in 2018.

The City expects to purchase about 44 new barges, which are expected to cost between $45,000 to $60,000 each, and spend a maximum amount of $4 million. However, there are several steps and developments that must take place before that happens.

Council members Thursday approved an ordinance to grant Metalab up to $400,000 in funds to construct a new watercraft fleet and develop a prototype barge. The barge, and the new fleet, will run on a 12-hour battery life, with a full recharge taking 10 hours. The barge design will be finalized this June, and a Request For Proposal (RFP) for a manufacturer will begin in July. The test barge is slated to be ready by September.

According to John Jacks, interim director of the Center City Development and Operations, the next step in the project timeline is the finalization of the barge design to ensure maximum efficiency.

“I think this speaks to our investments as a city because this is an investment in innovation, and you can never go wrong with an investment in innovation,” said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).

The Metalab design was selected for its versatility and modular capability. The barge features a single-level ADA-friendly deck that will comfortably seat individuals in wheelchairs, and allow them to sit with a companion. The design also allows operators to remove seats to make room for less traditional activities along the San Antonio River, such as yoga sessions, cocktail parties and live music performances.

Andrew Vrana of MetaLab demonstrates the accessibility of his firms design. Photo by Scott Ball.
Andrew Vrana of Metalab demonstrates the accessibility of his firms design. Photo by Scott Ball.

Council members expressed concern over potential limitations of the new electric barges, and whether they would be costly to replace batteries or were more likely to give out during rides, but Jacks assured them that they would make operations more efficient.

“All-electric boats are being used throughout the world, and I think San Antonio is unique in that we’re operating in this scope and frequency and volume. I’m not aware of anywhere else that operates on the same level of San Antonio,” Jacks said.

The new all-electric fleet could put San Antonio ahead of other similar attractions throughout the country, he said.

Council approved a second ordinance to extend Rio San Antonio Cruises‘ contract for current river barges and to allow it to operate until September 2017, when the new barges are expected to move into the river. The ordinance also approved Rio’s proposed ticket price increase to cover increased costs in payroll and credit card charges. The City revenue from the increase will help to pay for the new fleet, Jacks said. 

“When we find a new operator, they are also required to lease the fleet, and that lease amount will help with the cost of the new barges,” added Lori Houston, assistant City manager.

Throughout the final design and testing process, project officials will gather feedback from an evaluation committee, which includes officials from the City, AIA San Antonio, San Antonio River Authority, Conservation Society, members of the local tourism industry and downtown residents.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) encouraged Jacks to gather input from individuals living outside of downtown as well. “Lets see what they are looking for in an operator, or what would make them come back downtown,” she said.

The City plans to present their final recommendation for a manufacturer to City Council in November, and officials expect that the new fleet of river barges will be in the water by September 2017. Officials said that the process will move quickly, but with meaningful input and purpose.

“Innovation is not easy, but I applaud (the City and stakeholders) for taking this on,” Treviño said. “It’s important to really try some things and to be willing to look at different issues. If we fail, we fail fast.”

Top Image: Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) speaks to Councilmembers about the new river barge designs. Photo by Lea Thompson.

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Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.