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Ferry service planned for 'period of months, if not a year' as Pensacola Bay Bridge is out

Melissa Brown
Pensacola News Journal

A Gulf Breeze official on Wednesday said area cities are planning for a viable ferry service for “a period of months, if not a year” as unfavorable conditions have delayed a complete inspection of Pensacola Bay Bridge damage. 

Pensacola and Gulf Breeze have both identified sites for potential ferry docks. Both sustained some damage from Hurricane Sally last week, but city officials said Wednesday that repairs could be completed in a matter of weeks. Ticket prices, parking availability and commute times are all being studied by a number of teams made up of city and county officials. 

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In Gulf Breeze, City Manager Samantha Abell said the city expects to have a proposal ready to go to the City Council next week. 

“We do anticipate a special meeting in the days ahead as we work with Pensacola in order to fine tune the details and put that plan out to the public,” Abell said. 

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson confirmed Wednesday that officials are only considering passenger ferry services at this time. Robinson said the waterway is deep enough, but current docks are unable to accommodate vehicle loading. 

The mayor said he foresees a combination of large passenger ferries in addition to smaller passenger charters, and the city is also considering a ferry to both Pensacola Beach and Gulf Breeze. 

“We’ll have a dock. I don’t care how you get to the dock, which type of boat you get there with. I can see a scenario that would have multiple different types (of boats),” Robinson said. 

In an online Q&A on Wednesday, Robinson referenced a similar ferry service that began after a barge struck and damaged Pensacola Bay Bridge in January 1989. A combination of vessels began offering ferry services in the days following the collision, including charter boats, passenger ferries and at least one car ferry, according to Pensacola News Journal reporting at the time. 

The car ferry service, which began operating 14 days after the bridge was damaged on Jan. 14, 1989, ran on a 70-minute cycle between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze. The 46-car ferry began in Gulf Breeze at 5:30 a.m. and Pensacola at 6:05 a.m., and operators charged per car, rather than per passenger, to encourage carpooling. Tickets cost $10 per one-way trip. 

In Gulf Breeze, Abel said the first challenge after Sally was determining where a potential ferry service could dock. In 1989, Gulf Breeze used the Wayside Park area as the landing area, but the park is currently a staging site for heavy equipment and isn’t a feasible option. A privately owned pier was briefly considered, but parking constraints took it out of the running. 

The best option is Shoreline Park South, where Abell met with Hornblower Maritime representatives on Wednesday to inspect the area. 

“After touring the pier with ferry operators today, they felt certain given the depth of the waters there and the facilities that it is a very viable solution,” she said. 

The Shoreline pier was damaged last week but repairs are “imminent, and already in the works,” Abell said. The pier will be fully operational for ferry service when repairs are done. 

Abell said area partners hope to know more on Friday, after another series of meetings. A separate team is currently studying the financials of potential proposals, including possible fees for service.

“We'll be able to talk more about affordability and numbers on Friday,” Abell said. "That (planning) is happening on a parallel track right now."

Meanwhile, another team is working to determine what commuters can expect in terms of commute time. 

“We need to make sure we're setting expectations for those trying to get to work so they can make the best decision on whether to use the bridge or the ferry,” Abell said. 

Establishing parking availability is also a major factor for cities on both sides of the ferry route. In 1989, many commuters parked cars on the Pensacola side, organizing carpools or making other arrangements to get to the ferry in the morning. Robinson said Thursday there is “significant” parking availability at the Pensacola site. 

Abell said after a site inspection, officials discovered there was more parking capacity than initially expected at the Shoreline pier location. 

“What we're trying to determine now is the amount of ferries and the number of trips that would be taken in the morning and in the afternoon commute,” Abell said. “Given the passenger load and the number of ferries, that will tell us how many parking spaces we would need to accommodate. ... We think we can comfortably accommodate about 700 parking spaces in close proximity to the pier serving the ferries. We also have area churches who have already stepped forward as overflow parking. We would have that satellite parking available as well.”

It’s not currently clear how long repairs to Pensacola Bay Bridge will take. Officials this week said ongoing instability at the bridge’s foundation has delayed a complete assessment. 

The bridge was damaged in two phases last week. On Sept. 15, the day before Hurricane Sally’s landfall, a Skanska USA barge broke loose and hit the bridge, temporarily lodging beneath the bridge for a time. The next day, a Skanska construction crane crashed into the bridge, smashing through a portion of the roadway. 

In a Tuesday press release, the Florida Department of Transportation said wind and water conditions have not been favorable for a complete inspection, though FDOT identified at least four bridge piers that “rotated” when the barge crashed. At least one pier has cracked pilings.  

Abell said that without the FDOT assessment on a repair timeline, city and area officials are planning ahead. 

“For any public commuter ferry plan, we would put forth a system that would be viable over a period of months, if not a year,” she said. “We are looking further out than an immediate need.”

Regardless of the FDOT timetable, area officials agreed getting a viable ferry option up and running is a main priority. 

“None of it is going to happen without us taking these two weeks right now to fix our own landing site,” Robinson said. “We're out getting bids, so hopefully by next week we can select somebody and turn them loose to get work happening.”