A river barge operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Flickr user Mike Whaling.
A river barge operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises in downtown San Antonio in 2009. Photo by Flickr user Mike Whaling.

One of the most iconic features of the downtown River Walk is the river barges that ferry tourists along the urban stretch of the San Antonio River. Some barge rides offer customers a running account of the history and development of the city, while others host moving dinners and cocktail parties, or serve as water taxis that reach as far north on the Museum Reach as the Pearl. The barge fleet makes the city’s celebrated river parades an annual rite, each one drawing hundreds of thousands of locals and visitors.

With San Antonio’s 300th anniversary approaching in May 2018, the City has decided to host an international design competition that officials hopes will transform the look and functionality of the barges and usher in a new generation of barges that are more sustainable, modular fleet that use innovative technology to enhance the river experience for locals and visitors, according to a Friday afternoon news release from City Hall.

The competition, managed by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA San Antonio), officially opens on Friday, Oct. 30 to local, national and international teams. Submissions are due by Dec. 11. Registration and more information will be available online at www.aiasa.org by the design competition launch date.

“The current river barge design dates back to 1995 and is reflective of where we have been,” stated Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1). “This design competition will ensure the winning design is reflective of a culturally rich and progressive city.”

The crowded locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Mission Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.
The crowded river locks during the 2009 grand opening of the Museum Reach. Photo courtesy of San Antonio River Authority Facebook page.

The City is calling for an all-electric fleet of ADA-complaint barges that offer riders shade not available on current barges,  and a design solution that visitors, residents and urban commuters will want to experience. The design competition calls for barges of varying sizes and uses constructed out of the most sustainable materials and employing the latest propulsion technology and engineering. The designs need to be economically feasible and actually work. Click here to download the competition summary.

A nine-person jury – six of whom will be locals – will announce three finalists on Dec. 18. Design teams on the short list will each receive $10,000 for materials/design development and travel expenses to resubmit a more extensive design proposal and 3-D model that will be available for public review and comment online on Jan. 25, 2016.

AIA San Antonio will host an open house on Feb. 8 so members of the public can review the models in person and select a People’s Choice Award winner. The jury will announce the competition winner on Feb. 10, 2016. First place will receive $20,000, second place $10,000, and third place $5,000.

The winning design will be used to inform two subsequent contracts, one for barge manufacturing and another 10-year contract for barge operation and programming. The City will purchase the new boats and lease them to an operator. The request for proposals (RFP) for those contracts will go out in March 2016. If all goes as planned, new boats could be on the river by January 2017.

Current barge operator Rio San Antonio Cruises‘ 10-year contract is up in September 2016, but has been extended until a new contract is awarded in early 2017. The local company has operated on the river since 2002 when it took over Yanaguana Cruises’ contract and purchased its barges. The operating contract gives the company an exclusive monopoly to transportation on the river.

“There’s only room for one (operator),” said John Jacks, interim director of the Center City Development and Operations Department.

Some of Rio Cruises’ estimated 45 barges have been replaced, Jacks said, but most are 20 years old.

“Breaking it up into three pieces drives opportunities for more options and more innovative designs,” Jacks said.

A company could still compete in all three processes (design, manufacture, operation) for the top spot if they have the resources, but, he said, this way specialized companies from all over the world can enter the ring.

“This innovative approach will relieve the financial burden of a potential operator having to secure the upfront capital to purchase the barge fleet,” Mayor Ivy Taylor stated. “Not only will we be able to offer an outstanding transportation option, we will encourage more competition through the RFP process.”

AIA San Antonio expects to receive proposals that include at least three different barge sizes and designs – a smaller, more nimble one for commuters, a large tour barge that can seat at least 35 people, and special use barges for dining and other events.

The $88,000 design competition is sponsored by a City funding agreement (which contributed $38,000 to total), San Antonio River Authority ($25,000), and the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau ($25,000). AIA San Antonio is being paid $15,000 to manage the competition for the City.

“The San Antonio River is an iconic community feature,” stated AIA San Antonio President Nicole Marrone, an architect and associate at Alamo Architects. “Our chapter is honored to partner with the City of San Antonio on this project to transform the River Walk experience. Local architects applaud the City’s commitment to make the river barge a more sustainable, passenger-friendly experience for tourists and locals alike.”

*Top image: A river barge operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises in downtown San Antonio in 2009. Photo by Flickr user Mike Whaling.

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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