March 3, 2007

New Water Buses to Cruise on Roads, River: Amphibious Vehicles Will Make a Big Splash, Then Tour Old Sac.

By Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Mar. 3--A couple of odd ducks are coming to town this spring.

A local group plans to launch an amphibious attraction in April -- buses that take visitors to tourist sites downtown, then plow into the river for a five-mile, jet-propelled cruise past Old Sacramento.

"The highlight is driving into the river at an intentionally big speed," said Jim Heffelfinger of Sacramento Yacht Charters. "The buses make a big boooossshh!"

Launch sites, he said, will be Miller Park boat ramps south of downtown and the ramps at Discovery Park to the north.

Sacramento Yacht Charters, which runs river excursions, hopes to have the buses in town and painted gold for an April start.

City leaders have given thumbs up to the company's plan -- for a small slice of revenues -- and say they are eager to see what Councilman Rob Fong calls "the duck boats" in action.

"It's going to be the new kid on the block," said Old Sacramento manager Ed Astone.

Chuck Dalldorf, aide to Mayor Heather Fargo, suggests the bus-boats may slide into new waters by making transportation fun and boosting the city's efforts to reconnect with the river.

"If you are going to connect with the river, let's have fun," he said. "If you make transportation fun, you expand the number of people who look forward to using it."

On the streets, the 42-passenger vehicles will act like regular buses, but may look like fish out of water with their bulbous white prows and fiberglass hulls.

In the river, wheels partially retract and pontoons inflate for balance, said Don Redman of Florida-based TrolleyBoats LLC, which manufactures the vessels.

Sacramento will be only the fourth tourist spot in the country with trolley boats, Redman said. Boston and other areas have run tourist excursions for years using similar Army-surplus amphibious vessels.

One such vehicle took on water and sank, killing 13 people, in Hot Springs, Ark., in 1999.

Redman said he designed his vessels primarily as a boat, with enclosed fiberglass-composite hull and bearing seals to prevent water leakage at the wheel axles.

Sacramento Yacht Charters, which also owns the Matthew McKinley and the Spirit of Sacramento vessels on the river, is planning a 90-minute tour, a 60-minute tour and an evening land-only tour connecting hotels, restaurants and night spots.

A launch date, prices and routes aren't yet set, Heffelfinger said, although an all-day ticket for the longer tour may cost $35.

Arrival of water buses coincides with the end of a recent Sacramento River tradition. The tubby little River Otter taxi boats will be sidelined this year, Heffelfinger said, because restaurants along the river -- the taxis' main stops -- have closed.

But King said he's betting tourists will take to the new bus-boats, and not just for the plunge into the river. Tourists who use the service no longer will have to hunt for scarce parking as they visit Sutter's Fort, the Capitol, the Crocker Art Museum, Old Sacramento and other sites.

"That," King said, "is going to be the secret to the whole operation."


Copyright (c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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