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Duck Boat Tours Could Be Coming to Chicago River

By Mina Bloom | January 12, 2015 5:37am
 Duck boat tours, which use boats like these seen in London, could be coming to Chicago.
Duck boat tours, which use boats like these seen in London, could be coming to Chicago.
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Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

CHICAGO — A Navy Pier-based cruise operator has submitted a proposal to launch "duck tours" using amphibious trucks that start on land before entering the Chicago River.

The tours, which are popular in cities like Boston and Seattle and in the Wisconsin Dells, require special ramps in order for the boats to get in and out of the water.

Entertainment Cruises has proposed that one ramp be built in the water at Marina Towers by modifying an existing marina structure and the other be built on the east bank of the river at West Polk Street, according to public documents. 

"We're very excited about the possibility," said Dan Russell, vice president and general manager for Entertainment Cruises.

"Given the complexity of putting this together, I understand why no one has attempted to do this [in Chicago] yet. It's a tricky one."

Russell is referring to the various agencies that must approve the project before construction of the ramps can begin. If approved, construction would begin sometime within the next two years, he said.

Last November, the proposal was submitted by Chicago-based structural engineering firm Alfred Benesch and Co. on behalf of Entertainment Cruises. It is being reviewed by state regulators, including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The review process will end Jan. 28, according to a state DNR spokesman. If Entertainment Cruises is compliant with public water rules and responds to any comments, it should be approved then, the spokesman said.

The proposal also needs approval from the Army Corps of Engineers and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. It's already been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildfire Service.

Then there's the process of obtaining permits, which Entertainment Cruises would do by working with the city and Marina City, Russell said.

The ramp at Marina Towers would be 25 feet by 73 feet long, while the ramp at West Polk Street would be 20 feet by 73 feet long, according to public documents.

The Polk Street ramp would be built by modifying the existing east abutment of the former Polk Street bridge, which was built in 1908 and removed in 1972. There were no plans to replace it, according to documents.

Neither ramp would protrude into the river channel. The ramps have a singular purpose, meaning no car, passenger or other company will be able to use them.

A spokesman for the city could not be immediately reached for comment.

Andrew Sargis, chief of operations for Chicago Water Taxi, said there are "very few surprises" as far as developments on the river go. 

That's because there's great communication between boat tour companies at Chicago Harbor Safety Committee meetings, he said.

"Whatever happens with the duck boat operation, I'm confident it will be done in a very safe and secure way with all of the stakeholders in mind," Sargis said, adding that he thought Entertainment Cruises is a great company.

Billed as the nation's largest dining and sightseeing cruise company, Entertainment Cruises has a fleet of 30 ships in cities across the country. The Chicago outpost operates from Navy Pier.

Russell said one of the main reasons tourism is growing is because there are so many wonderful things to do in the city. 

"The Chicago duck tours will be another reason to come down," Russell said. "The important thing now is to do this correctly and open this in the right way. We have a long view on this."

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