- Associated Press - Monday, January 1, 2018

HOUSTON (AP) - One of the most iconic features of The Woodlands is back in action after a nearly four-month hiatus caused by Hurricane Harvey.

The Houston Chronicle reports the Waterway Cruiser boats began running again in a limited fashion on Dec. 8, bringing back the popular boats that ferry tourists and residents up and down The Woodlands Waterway and around Lake Woodlands.

Lisa Spitz, owner and operator of Waterway Events, the company that runs the boat service, said cruises resumed on Dec. 8, but with only one of four boats in operation. The limited schedule for the cruises includes hours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

“It is such a relief,” Spitz said of finally restarting the service. “It was just devastating when we went down to see the boats (after Hurricane Harvey). There was water everywhere flowing in. The boats were not sinking, but there was a lot of damaged electrical components.”

When the inundation from Hurricane Harvey ended, Spitz said all four of the company’s boats were severely damaged. The boats had previously run on electric motors, she said, and the deluge of water ruined the engines and other electrical equipment necessary for the boats to work.

“Once the electrical (components) went out, it was downhill from there,” Spitz said. “Now, I’m down to one just one boat. I should have two more up running soon.”

Nick Wolda, president of Visit The Woodlands and The Woodlands Township Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he and other township officials are excited the cruisers are back in action.

“(The cruisers) are very important to this area. The Waterway needs some activity,” Wolda said. “(Spitz) has been working hard to get them up and going again.”

The boats and cruises along The Woodlands Waterway are an important element of the township’s overall image across not only the region, but throughout Texas and the United States, Wolda said.

“(The service) is one of our distinguishing differentials to other downtowns in the Houston area,” Wolda added.

While there is no financial connection between the service and The Woodlands Township, there is an agreement between the business and the township to have the boats operating on a regular schedule. After Harvey, township and CVB officials gave leeway for Spitz to make necessary repairs to the boats and get the service running again, agreeing to not penalize the business for the stoppage in service.

HARVEY STOPPAGE LATEST BLOW TO SERVICE

The boat service dates to 2004 when it was owned by a Florida-based company called Water Taxi Inc. The boats were later given as a free gift to The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, which helped fund the service through hotel occupancy tax funds. Texas law allows for municipal entities to use those tax funds for anything related to tourism.

In 2008, township officials reported more than 58,000 riders on the iconic boats, however after a fare hike and reduction in days of operation to only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the ridership of the cruisers dropped significantly. Current statistics on boat ridership were not available, however after 2008, the service was averaging close to 34,000 to 35,000 customers per year.

The township was also losing money with the service, and had utilized more than $250,000 in federal funding for new generators and engines for the 35-foot-long crafts that hold about 35-40 riders.

Brazos Transit District, which also operates and manages the trolley system around The Woodlands, was operating the boats on behalf of the township. Faced with the lower ridership and costly maintenance, officials with The Woodlands Township and the CVB sought independent companies to buy the service in late 2015.

In March, 2016, Spitz said she agreed to purchase the boats and service rights from The Woodlands Township and began running the business as an independent operator, but with an agreement with the township to maintain the cruise schedule and service. According to documents provided to The Villager by the CVB, Spitz agreed to purchase the boats and service for $90,000 effective April 1, 2016.

Before moving to The Woodlands, Spitz said she operated a similar water service in Waco, providing trips to Baylor football games on the Brazos River on a yacht she owned.

“There were two floods of the Brazos River and I was forced to stop operations,” she said. “And then I came here and got a hurricane.”

Because Spitz owns the service, she said she does not receive any of the federal funding that was previously allocated to the service when it was operated by the Brazos Transit Authority. The current repairs and new engines have been costly for the small business.

“I’m completely independent,” Spitz said. “We don’t get any federal funding.

NEW ENGINES PART OF REPAIRS

Spitz noted that the boats are getting new, more powerful engines from Germany called Torqeedo motors. She said the engines will allow for a better cruising experience for guests.

The boats cruise for 45 minutes up and down the narrow 1.4 mile Waterway. The company owns six boats in total, but Spitz said two of the craft are inoperable and are now utilized for spare parts. While there is only one boat in operation now, when the new Torqeedo engines arrive and are installed, two more cruisers will be added to the mix. There is no time line for the fourth boat to be back in action, she said.

Spitz said she was thankful to officials for allowing her the time to fix her watercraft and resume cruises, which she said are popular with tourists who make up about 90 percent of her customers. The resumption of cruises means that she and her two employees-one boat captain and a maintenance worker-can resume their livelihoods and also take tourists on fun cruises.

“(The cruisers) are just sort of a staple of The Woodlands. It is one more thing that adds to the charm of The Woodlands,” Spitz added. “We had one little hiccup (with service) on Saturday (Dec. 9), but we had two private parties and everything went great. The Waterway is so beautiful. It is really fun and different.”

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Information from: The Houston Chronicle http://www.chron.com

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com


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