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The National Parks Service’s planned Pensacola Bay ferry service moved one step closer to reality Wednesday as officials began accepting proposals for a concessionaire to operate the ferry service.

The selection of a concessionaire is a critical milestone for the project, with ferry service expected to begin next spring. The concessionaire will be responsible for providing passenger ferry, food and beverage, retail, shuttle transportation, and other services at Fort Pickens.

Proposed ferry route for the Pensacola Bay ferry service. (Special to The Pulse)

Proposed ferry route for the Pensacola Bay ferry service. (Special to The Pulse)

“We’re excited to select a concessionaire for the Pensacola Bay ferry service, and to start finalizing operational decisions with them once selected,” said park superintendent Dan Brown.

Two 150-passenger double-decker catamaran ferry boats are currently under construction by All American Marine of Bellingham, Wash. Earlier this year, local fourth graders named the ferries Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch in a contest sponsored by the National Park Service. Each ferry will have a climate-controlled enclosed main deck and a shaded upper deck for observation, and will be equipped with a snack bar, restrooms, passenger storage, and flat-screen TVs and a sound system for on-board interpretation by park rangers.  The ferries 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.

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Conceptual rendering of what the downtown Pensacola landing of the ferry service may look like. (National Parks Service/Special to The Pulse)

The two ferries will provide service in both directions between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore’s Fort Pickens Area. NPS officials estimate as many as 63,000 passengers annually could take advantage of the ferry system.

New details released

Ticket prices haven’t yet been finalized, but officials said earlier this year that prices would likely to be in the $16 to $22 range for adults and around $12 for children, with tickets including “hop on, hop off” privileges throughout the day as well as admission to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Officials confirmed this week that discounted tickets will also be offered for active military and seniors, and three-day passes will also be available in addition to daily tickets. Children under the age of 3 will ride the ferry for free.

NPS officials released a tentative schedule for the Pensacola Bay ferry service. (National Parks Service/Special to the Pulse)

NPS officials released a tentative schedule for the Pensacola Bay ferry service. (National Parks Service/Special to the Pulse)

Park officials also released new information about the ferries’ operating schedule. The ferry system will operate from March 15 through October 31 each year, with daily service from May 15 through August 15, and weekend-only service from March 15 through May 14 and August 16 through October 31. Each of the system’s three endpoints — downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens — will have a minimum of six arrivals and six departures each day.

Six 27-passenger shuttles will operate in the Fort Pickens area in conjunction with the ferry service, running every 15 minutes between the fort, campgrounds, and Langdon Beach. Tickets for the shuttle will range from $1-2, officials said. Bike rentals will also be available.

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The planned route for a Fort Pickens shuttle service that will operate in conjunction with upcoming the ferry service. (National Parks Service/Special to the Pulse)

Gulf Islands National Seashore officials have released a prospectus for interested concession operators. Offers for the 10-year concession contract will be accepted through November 30. All offers will be reviewed by a National Park Service panel and the contract will be awarded once that process is completed, likely in early 2017.

While the ferry is set to launch in late spring or early summer, not every piece of the puzzle will be in place by then. The Commendencia Slip docks where the ferry will dock in downtown Pensacola will be ready when ferry operations start, but landside facilities like a ticketing office and restrooms won’t be completed until later in the year.

It’s also possible that a fourth destination could be added to the ferry route in the future. Officials said this week that Naval Air Station — home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola Lighthouse, Fort Barrancas, and other attractions — is undergoing a planning process which could open the door for future ferry connections.

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