Just hours after the city rejected a plan Tuesday to move the duck boats to the Schuylkill, the company that operates them said it plans to return to the Delaware River, the site of a July 7 accident that killed two Hungarian tourists.
There appear to be few hurdles in the way - at least for now.
The Coast Guard has cleared Ride the Ducks, the Georgia company that runs the business, to resume operations on the Delaware.
Joseph Forkin, vice president of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp. (DRWC), which holds the lease for the ramp the ducks use, said his organization's agreement with Ride the Ducks was current. He said it was too early to comment further.
Chris Herschend, head of the company that operates Ride the Ducks in Philadelphia and four other locations, said he hoped to have the duck boats on the Delaware this year.
"We anticipate resuming operations here in Philadelphia. We're not sure exactly when," he said. "We turn our focus today back to resuming operations on the Delaware."
He said that he did not know when the ducks would return but that he believed it would be this year. The ducks generally begin their season in March and run through the fall.
The return to the Delaware likely will engender controversy. A barge owned by the City of Philadelphia hit a duck July 7, taking the lives of the two tourists. The National Transportation Safety Board is expected to complete its investigation into the accident this summer.
The barge was being pushed by a tugboat, and the first mate on that boat has refused to talk to the NTSB.
Ride the Ducks has maintained that it was not at fault, but the accident focused concerns on whether small pleasure craft can operate safely on the Delaware, a narrow, busy shipping channel.
Robert Mongeluzzi, a lawyer for the families of the two who died in the accident, said he believed the risk of collision was higher on the Delaware, but said that was not the primary safety concern. He said he believed the ducks' canopies are unsafe because they trap people wearing life jackets if the craft sink. But if people do not wear life jackets, they are more likely to drown.
"The city's press release didn't address the most important issue, which is the safety of the men, women, and children who are on those vessels," he said. Ride the Ducks has repeatedly said that its watercraft are safe and has argued that the canopy probably protected the 35 people who survived the barge crash.
Gregory Adams, the Coast Guard's port captain in Philadelphia from 1998 to 2002, barred ducks from operating off Penn's Landing because of concern for their safety among larger ships. His successor, Jonathan Sarubbi, reversed Adams' ban in 2003, and the ducks have operated every year since.
The Coast Guard this summer cleared the ducks to return to the Delaware, but the agency could request changes to the vessels or deem them unsafe and bar them if the NTSB finds the duck contributed to or caused the barge accident.
"As far as the Coast Guard, [the ducks] have been approved for the Delaware River," Petty Officer Michael Lutz said Tuesday.
Bid documents submitted by Ride the Ducks to operate on the Schuylkill revealed the existence of a second investigation by "a law-enforcement agency," but did not say which agency or whether the investigation was criminal or civil. The documents also said Ride the Ducks "is not the focus of the investigation."
City officials had been promoting the Schuylkill as an alternative because it has far less traffic than the Delaware. But those plans ran into opposition from residents and others who feared the ducks would disrupt the recreational path and park on the Schuylkill.
To mitigate those concerns, the city and Ride the Ducks shifted the proposed entry point from the east to the west side of the Schuylkill, but they still could not make the plan workable.
Mayor Nutter said several problems hindered the proposed route from Old City down the Ben Franklin Parkway, over Martin Luther King Drive to the Schuylkill's west bank:
Noise, especially from the kazoos passengers play while riding the ducks.
The need to have three to six ducks at a time on the Schuylkill, which could interfere with other boats and disrupt the park's tranquillity.
The frequent shutdown of the Parkway for festivals and other public events.
The difficulty of making a sweeping turn off King Drive down to the river.
The need for a traffic light on the bridge so the ducks could turn safely.
"The city has fully reviewed Ride the Ducks' proposal for the Schuylkill River and does not feel that it meets the city's standards for operations," Nutter said.
Herschend, whose company is based in Norcross, Ga., said he was "disappointed, but we respect the city's decision."
Herschend had flown to Philadelphia to get the news from Managing Director Richard Negrin in an 8 a.m. meeting Tuesday.
Nutter said the city had little say in the decision to move to the Delaware because the company's lease is with the private DRWC. On the Schuylkill, the ducks would have traveled over city-owned park land, giving the city legal control.
Nutter has influence at the DRWC. He appoints the organization's board of directors, and four are city employees: Deputy Mayor for Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler; Director of Federal Affairs Terry Gillen; Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger; and Gary Jastrzab, executive director of the Planning Commission.
Nutter said he could not say whether he would request safety or other changes if the ducks resumed operations on the Delaware because he had no proposal to consider.
Happy C. Fernandez, president of Moore College of Art and Design and a member of the Parkway Council, an alliance of the boulevard's cultural institutions, said she was pleased the ducks would not move to the Schuylkill.
"I, and a number of people on the Parkway Council, did not want duck boats quacking all and up and down the Parkway," Fernandez said.