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Water taxis zipping up and down the Detroit River and trolley buses humming along the riverfront could be the next legs in the city's expanding transit system.

It's an idea being pushed by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, which is preparing to raise $3 million to fund a transportation system that is part water taxi, part trolley and operates exclusively along the river in Detroit.

The conservancy, a nonprofit that has transformed the city's riverfront into a pedestrian-friendly place, hired Michigan-based Freshwater Transit, a transit planning and management firm, to study the feasibility of a mixed-use system.

Based on the research, the conservancy has pitched a plan to its board for six water taxi stations and 14 trolley stops from West Riverfront Park to Gabriel Richard Park, with stops on Belle Isle.

William Smith, the conservancy's chief financial officer, said the first phase of the water taxi route would use six existing docks or access points along the river. They are Cobo Center, the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, RenCen/GM Plaza, Rivard Plaza, the Rattlesnake Club and Belle Isle.

Suggested fares would be $1 for a trolley ride and $7.50 for taxi service, based on an estimated initial annual ridership of 5,000. Prices would be lower for seniors and children, and passes would be available.

The trolley route was designed to give riders access to water taxis and to tie into existing transit systems in Detroit such as the M-1 Rail, People Mover, DDOT and SMART bus routes and the Dequindre Cut. It would operate using Atwater and other riverfront streets.

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The project needs $3 million in capital investment, Smith said. It has a fundraising goal of $4.25 million, and an eye toward launching in 2016.

"We have a lot of dock space that we control or our partners control like the DNR, Port Authority and GM," Smith said. "It made sense to be able to allow folks other opportunities to travel along the riverfront."

Using existing docks reduces the need to build new ones, Smith said. Money is needed to purchase up to three water taxis and up to four trolleys and add signage, as well as for first-year operational costs. Operations could later be contracted out by the conservancy, he said.

The idea is a natural for Detroit, Smith added.

"If you had a convention at Cobo, you can take a water taxi to the hotel or to dinner," Smith said. "How many people can say the front door of their city is a world border?"

Tom Woolsey, owner of Andrews on the Corner in Detroit, says he loves the idea of a trolley. He suggested a historical narrative of the city and riverfront be added to the trip, to engage and inform riders as they cruise down the paved RiverWalk.

Andrews on the Corner, a bar-restaurant, is part of Detroit's Rivertown, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, where the landscape is dominated by open spaces and abandoned warehouses with river access. It survived the demolition crews that cleared the area in the late 1990s for casinos that instead moved closer to downtown.

"I think the trolley would be a great idea. The water taxi, it depends on what they do. I think it would be tough for people to get dropped off at Belle Isle and not have something significant to do there," Woolsey said.

Andrews, a 97-year-old business, operates its own shuttle for Red Wings and Tigers games, as do other Detroit bars and restaurants. Woolsey says the proposed taxi and trolley fares are reasonable. The free trolley operated in Grosse Pointe, he noted, is funded by local businesses and supporters.

"I really hope the trolley goes through there. It would really expand a lot of interest down there," he said.

Ron Olson, chief of the Parks and Recreation Division for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the state also envisioned water taxi services from the island to the mainland and had spoken to the Port Authority about a possible partnership.

Since its inception in 2003, the conservancy has raised $120 million toward its $140 million goal to revitalize 5.5 miles of riverfront from just east of the MacArthur Bridge to the Ambassador Bridge.

Its funders include the Kresge Foundation, the city of Detroit, General Motors Co. and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

It has a $38 million endowment and has funded projects including the Detroit RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut. Officials are hoping the water taxi service will be next.

Smith said a water taxi demonstration will debut at the 2015 Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix this month, with taxis running from the Port Authority to Belle Isle.

"The (conservancy) board has seen (the plan). They love it. Our stakeholders love it. Now its a matter to raise the capital," Smith said.

JChambers@detroitnews.com

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