On Jan. 14, 1989, I was awakened at my Pensacola Beach home by a call from my city editor at the Pensacola News Journal. The Bay Bridge had been rammed by a tug boat, an event forever to be known as the day the ship hit the span.
Fortunately for the News Journal, I was on the other side of the bridge from the PNJ, and he wanted me to take a look from there.
So I drove into Gulf Breeze and found that, yep, the bridge was definitely closed.
This was a big problem. The Garcon Point Bridge was still an unrealized boondoggle, so commuting to Pensacola meant traveling through Navarre, up Hwy. 87, and down I-10. That’s a long commute.
Now, why am I telling you this? I’m getting there.
Eventually the bridge remained closed for almost three weeks, and was then limited to two lanes for more than six months.
And therein lies the tale.
The bridge is the major route into Pensacola for everybody in Gulf Breeze, Pensacola Beach and along U.S. 98 to Navarre. Into this hole jumped a ferry company, which began daily service at reasonable prices. And a painful commute became a party.
In the mornings ferry riders feasted on doughnuts and coffee as the sun rose over a glittering bay, and in the evenings saluted the setting sun with cold beer. Instead of sitting alone in their cars, tensely gripping the steering wheel, people chatted with fellow commuters, read the newspaper or enjoyed the scenery. This was, of course, before cell phones; now most drivers text or read their emails behind the wheel.
People enjoyed the ride so much that during interviews and casual conversations the overwhelming consensus was to stick with the ferry when two-lane traffic resumed, which we all knew would take a nightmare.
So when the bridge reopened, we laughed over our coffee and doughnuts as we breezed past the slow-moving morning traffic, and in the evening we saluted the congested bridge with a cold beer in hand.
Oh, wait. What actually happened was that the day the bridge reopened, I was practically alone on the ferry, and within days the boats pulled out. No matter how miserable the commute, people were too wedded to their cars to make the change.
This is all prompted by news that the ferry system coming for Gulf Islands National Seashore will carry an estimated ticket cost around $20. All I can say is, good luck. No, it’s not designed as a commute option. But at those prices, even with discounts for kids and others, it all but guarantees a ferry ride will be a pricey excursion for both tourists and locals. That in part is driven by the decision to operate 150-foot-long ferries, which are costly to operate. Gulf Islands offers ferries to Ship island in Mississippi, but they don’t have to compete with cars.
The upside? The ferries were paid for with oil spill money, and will be another attraction for tourists, helping meet the projected 60,000 annual riders. And certainly, the economics will change if another hurricane knocks out the road to Fort Pickens, especially if the Park Service decides not to rebuild it.
But until then, as cool as it might be, I’m afraid the ferry system will remain an expensive luxury, not an essential service.