The National Park Service is all set to start a passenger ferry service between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens by March 2017.
The planned inaugural boarding will bring to fruition a decades-long effort to start the first-ever publicly funded ferry service in the Pensacola Bay area.
The Park Service has estimated that over 65,000 passengers will take advantage of the ferry system each year.
The ferry service, funded by civil penalties resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, will travel between Downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens, part of the National Park Service’s (NPS) Gulf Islands National Seashore. The service would be operated by NPS through a concessionaire, much like its well-used Ship Island ferry service in Mississippi. In October, the Park Service awarded the contract for two 150-passenger ferry boats to All American Marine in Bellingham, Wash.
The vessels are currently under construction and are on schedule to be delivered to Pensacola in February 2017.
Last year, officials estimated the cost of the ticket to ride round trip and to all three destinations to be $10 to $15. Now, federal officials estimate tickets to be in the $16 to $22 range for adults, and around $12 for children.
“We have the authority to set a high limit on the fares,” Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore said Thursday. “There are significant operating costs for the concessionaire, but we ultimately approve all rates.”
Brown said a report will be released within the next month, detailing what consultants hired by the Park Service found regarding what the market could bear for ticket costs and ridership.
Asked about special rates for families and groups, Brown said they are still looking at incentivizing ridership from both visitors and locals through discount group rates.
“We looked at places like Disney World where they offer family passes and group discounts and we would like to offer something similar,” Brown said. “We would like to do a ‘three rides for the price of two’ rate, especially for families and groups.”
Brown has doubts any kind of unlimited, annual pass would be offered, like the SunPass program utilized for drivers commuting to and from Pensacola Beach.
“We probably will not offer an unlimited pass,” Brown said, citing limitations on the ferry service operator. “The ticket prices are set by the concessionaire with final review and approval by NPS.”
The ferry tickets will include admission to the Gulf Islands National Seashore and will offer “hop-on, hop-off” privileges, allowing passengers to travel in either direction between the ferry’s three endpoints during the day.
Like the nearby Ship Island ferry service in Mississippi, also managed by the National Park Service, the ferries will be owned by the federal government but operated by a private concessionaire.
“In about four weeks, we will begin the competitive bid process for the concessionaires,” Brown said. “This will include operators for the vessels, ground transportation at Fort Pickens, along with land-based concessions.”
In September, the Park Service will evaluate the most qualified and competitive bidder to operate the ferry service, with a final selection awarded in January.
The two 150-passenger catamaran ferry boats will feature a climate-controlled enclosed main deck and a shaded upper deck for observation, will be equipped with a snack bar for food and beverage service, restrooms, passenger storage, flat screen TVs and a sound system for on-board interpretation by NPS rangers. The boats will be fully accessible, meeting all ADA standards, and will have bike racks for those wishing to explore Fort Pickens or Santa Rosa Island by bicycle.
While construction has already begun and is well underway on the ferry boats, the same can’t be said for the facilities passengers will use to purchase tickets and board the vessels.
“The City of Pensacola is working with a contractor to design and build a $2 million ticketing and docking facility,” Brown said. “From my understanding, the city may not make the March 2017 deadline for its landside facilities.”
If the city-side ticketing facility is not complete by March 2017, Brown said a temporary facility may have to be built to accommodate passengers onto the ships. City officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The city contract, awarded to Atkins North America, calls for the Pensacola-side ferry landing to be located at Commendencia Slip, near Plaza de Luna. The $1.3 million contract is being funded through federal grant dollars awarded in 2015.
Conversely, Escambia County is moving ahead with their more than $1 million portion of the project, according to Brown. In the coming months, the county will soon begin construction on the first of three phases to construct a ticketing kiosk and extend the ferry dock at Quietwater Beach.
The following phases will include widening the dock to accommodate passengers and constructing a shaded shelter for passengers on the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk. The county is funding the construction through the Federal Highway Administration’s Land Access Program.
As construction of the ferry boats and landing facilities progresses, the Gulf Islands National Seashore recently wrapped up a competition to name the ferry boats. The contest was open at all fourth graders in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties.
“We had 88 names submitted,” Brown said. “We’re now organizing a committee to select the winning names.”
Brown said all students from the winning classes will be invited as special guests to the ribbon cutting ceremony in 2017, followed by a free ride on the ferry’s inaugural trip for themselves and up to three family members. The ferry boat naming contest is part of the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park initiative, which offers free annual national park passes to all fourth grade students.