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A major step forward took place this week in the ongoing effort to launch a passenger ferry service between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and Fort Pickens.

Two 150-passenger, multi-million dollar catamaran ferry boats were loaded onto a cargo ship in Victoria, British Columbia this week, destined for passage through the Panama Canal before arriving in Pensacola the week of April 17. By next spring, officials hope the vessels will welcome their first passengers to officially begin the Pensacola Bay ferry service.

Ferry boats are loaded onto a cargo ship in Victoria, British Columbia where they are being shipped to Florida in April. (All-American Marine/Special to The Pulse)

“The vessels are scheduled for arrival the week of April 17,” said Dan Brown, Superintendent of Gulf Islands National Seashore. “They were loaded up onto a cargo ship in Canada this week and will head down the Pacific Coast and through the Panama Canal before being off-loaded in Fort Lauderdale where they will motor over to Pensacola.”

Brown said once the ferry vessels arrive, they will be temporarily docked at Commendencia Slip adjacent to Plaza de Luna, where the City of Pensacola will soon begin construction of a ticketing and departure terminal.

“We’ll have the boats temporarily tied up at Plaza de Luna where people can come and see them and take photos,” Brown said. “Then, we’ll drydock them for storage at the Port of Pensacola until we begin the ferry service next spring.”

Ferry boats are loaded onto a cargo ship in Victoria, British Columbia where they are being shipped to Florida in April. (All-American Marine/Special to The Pulse)

The milestone comes in the wake of an unexpected year-long delay for the long-awaited ferry service. In January, National Park Service officials announced the start of the service would be delayed until spring 2018.

According to officials, the postponement was caused by numerous factors, including delays in finding a qualified operator for the service and delays in construction for departure facilities in downtown Pensacola and Pensacola Beach, which are expected to be complete later this year. An operator is expected to be chosen no later than January 2018 in anticipation of a spring 2018 start date.

Once established, the service will operate two 150-passenger ferries between downtown Pensacola, Pensacola Beach, and the Fort Pickens Area at Gulf Islands National Seashore. The ferry service is intended to serve as an alternate mode of transportation for visitors to the area when traveling to Fort Pickens, downtown, and Pensacola Beach. According to officials, if Fort Pickens Road is destroyed by another hurricane, the road will not be rebuilt and visitors will only be able to access the fort by boat.

The vessels, built by Washington-based All-American Marine, 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.

Prices for tickets will be finalized once an operator is chosen, according to park service officials.

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

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