Is a Pensacola Bay commuter ferry even possible? Challenges add up as the clock ticks
As the days without the Pensacola Bay Bridge add up, officials are working against the clock to come up with a ferry boat system that commuters could use as an alternative to the Garcon Point Bridge or U.S. 87 to travel between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze.
But the logistics of the ferries — including where and how they would dock, who is paying for them, how commuters would get around once they get to the other side and how to build the appropriate infrastructure to support them — are proving nightmarish for local officials tasked with getting the service up and running.
“Logistically, it is very difficult,” said Keith Wilkins, the city administrator for Pensacola. “In Pensacola, we’re lucky. We had multiple options and multiple facilities that could be reused and with less damage (for ferries). Gulf Breeze was not prepared, and they’re just not as set up for something like this. … They’ve got a lot of decisions to make and hurdles to get over.”
The Pensacola Bay Bridge has been out of commission since it was struck by multiple Skanska barges on Sept. 16 during Hurricane Sally. Skanska officials estimate it will take about six months to repair the bridge.
Gulf Breeze faces mounting issues with possible ferry ports
In Pensacola, the ferries could arrive and depart from the existing ferry port at the end of Commendencia Street downtown, which sustained damage during Hurricane Sally but was completely repaired as of Oct. 9, Wilkins said.
In Gulf Breeze, however, things are proving more difficult.
Wayside Park, located on both sides at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge in Gulf Breeze, was used as a ferry port in 1989 when the Pensacola Bay Bridge was temporarily out of service after being stuck by a barge. This time, however, Skanska has a construction easement for the park and is using it as a staging area for the equipment the company is using to build the bridge.
The next best option for the city is Shoreline Park, which still needs major repairs after being damaged by Hurricane Sally. The ramps, most of the docks and all staircases providing access to the park are still roped or fenced off, and the boat launch is only open to city residents.
Gulf Breeze Mayor Cherry Fitch said the city hopes to have repairs completed at the park within two or three weeks. But there's still the issue of the existing boat dock not being long enough for a ferry. The city needs to extend it by about 200 feet to get it past the seagrass and into deep enough water to accommodate such a large boat.
"The issues with the dock are that it is a long-term solution to a short-term problem, and so what that means is that for a three-square mile city, we would be looking at a $450,000 cost to extend the pier 200 feet,” Gulf Breeze City Manager Samantha Abell told the News Journal. “We’re focusing more on the idea of a floating barge that would act as a temporary dock extension that would be more temporary, cheaper and, ideally, quicker than extending the dock.”
Some ferry operators have suggested using an anchored barge to act as a temporary extension for the dock. It would be small, have railings and be connected to the dock via pilings and a ramp. Operators told the city that solution has been used elsewhere in similar situations.
“It would connect to the existing pier, and the pedestrians would walk across the barge and the load onto the ferry,” Abell said.
The barge would be provided by the ferry operator as part of its overall service. Cost estimates to use the barge as a dock extension were not available.
Who is going to foot the bill, and when will it be up and running?
The biggest question besides logistics, of course, is who is going to pay for the ferry system and any upgrades that need to be made to infrastructure to accommodate the ferries.
Both cities are hoping to make the ferries low or no cost to the rider, just as the Pensacola Bay Bridge was no cost to the driver. Both cities have requested that the Florida Department of Transportation, Skanska or both pony up the funds for the service, which could easily cost more than $2 million when all is said and done.
“It’s expensive, and we can’t afford it,” Wilkins said. “Pensacola is ready, by luck if nothing else. I think it could be handled easily if FDOT or Skanska just stepped up and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to pay for it.’ If that happened, Gulf Breeze could get the money it needs to get the docks they need, and the ferry service could be subsidized to what it needs to be.”
Abell said FDOT has been a “very engaged partner” with the city as it explores its options.
In a statement to the News Journal, FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said the department is "dedicated to helping alleviate the inconveniences as much as possible."
"The department is currently exploring all funding avenues available to implement a ferry service between Gulf Breeze and Pensacola," Satter said. "In conjunction with the cities, FDOT is also in the process of gathering information such as potential ridership, times of operation, and duration of service as well as reviewing existing facilities that would be necessary for the safe operation of a ferry, if it is determined to be cost feasible. Once all of these details are established, the exact funding mechanism will then be determined."
FDOT is handling procurement for the ferry service. The agency is expected to put out a request for proposals for ferry operators and select one that meets the requirements at a desired price point.
Pensacola and Gulf Breeze conducted surveys of their residents last week to gauge interest in a ferry service and determine how many people would actually use the service if it were available. The results from those surveys, conducted through the University of West Florida, should be available this week.
Susan Moore, who lives in Gulf Breeze but commutes to Pensacola each day for her work as a teacher, said she'd use the ferry service about four times a week if there was someone guaranteed to pick her up on the other side, like a ride share driver or a shuttle. But she doesn't think most people would use it because it's hard to figure out how to transport so many people around once they dock.
"You've got to get all those people home by supper time," she said.
The unknowns of the ferry service are piling up as the days drag on. Skanska said it hopes to have the repairs to the bridge made by April 1, and officials originally said they would like to have ferries up and running by the end of October, but that's growing increasingly unlikely to happen.
Wilkins, however, said he remains hopeful that if the ferries do happen, that people will see their usefulness and the service could continue even after the bridge is back in action.
“I hope people are open to this, because I’d like to see this continue after the bridge is built as part of the fabric of our transportation network,” Wilkins said. “A lot of places have it. Oklahoma City has a ferry on their river. If they can do it, we certainly can.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at email@example.com or 850-435-8632.