If you’ve made plans to ride the new ferry service between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach and Fort Pickens, you have a bit of a wait ahead of you – until next year.
Scheduled to begin this May, the project is now delayed in favor of beginning a new search for an operator. That emerged from a meeting last week among the National Park Service, Escambia County and the City of Pensacola.
“It had been a while since we talked and longer since we’ve met; and it was good to gather and share the latest update on each component of the ferry project,” said Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore.
When the first Request for Proposals went out, only one bid was returned. In all, about ten different people representing seven different firms showed up for site visits in October.
“Each of them expressed a number of concerns and had questions and so forth,” Brown said. “The biggest thing for each of them was that when they went to each of the ferry landing sites they saw no facilities; no docks, no landside facilities, ticket booths, and so forth. Many of them just didn’t think that given the time frame, those things would be in place.”
Ferry service between the three venues had always been planned to run during the local tourist season -- March through October. Brown says they’ve agreed to wait another year before launch, in March, 2018.
“We would have been completed by June. It’s my understanding that we’re already in the process of getting somebody to go ahead and do all of the things to the pier that needed to be done; we’re getting the kiosks done,” said Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, whose District-4 contains the ferry route and destinations.
Robinson adds that the silver lining in the delay is that now the county has time to finish building the shade structure, under which passengers will await the ferry. He’s also looking forward to the new RFPs being sent out.
“Hopefully with finalizing the landing areas, that perhaps they’ll see it better and we’ll get a few more people responding,” said Robinson. “It will be interesting to see; obviously, we’re going to be dependent upon having a good number of people just understanding the interest of it.”
Meanwhile, the two 150-foot ferries, “Turtle Runner” and “Pelican Perch,” are nearing completion at a shipyard in Bellingham, Washington, and are still scheduled to be delivered in March.
“Now we’re trying to work on what to do with the boats since we won’t need them for another year,” said Brown. “We might put them in dry dock for those months, or we’re exploring other options for their temporary assignments and use over that period.”
The boats were paid for by $4 million from BP, part of the restitution from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. For now, Brown says they’re working on a number of facilities to support the ferry project, including seven trams to be used to transport ferry passengers to various points at the park. They’ll be mothballed until the boats are placed into service.