Two National Park Service ferries, Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch, arrived in Pensacola on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The boats are expected to go into service in spring 2018.
Escambia County is facing a time crunch to ensure ferry service linking Pensacola Beach with Fort Pickens and downtown Pensacola is running before the 2018 summer tourism season.
At a beach town hall meeting Tuesday night, County Commissioner Grover Robinson and Public Works Director David Forte said the county plans to request construction bids for its ferry landing in the coming weeks.
Forte said Hurricanes Maria and Irma caused the cost of construction materials and labor to spike as the demand for those services increased. That means the cost of extending the pier at Quietwater Beach and making other improvements to provide the services will likely exceed estimates, he said.
The county hopes to award a construction contract in November and start the four-month construction project in December.
“We are trying to work with the park service to be able to enjoy ferry service by the spring of 2018,” Robinson said.
But any problems in the bidding process or construction delays could jeopardize the May start date, officials said.
Robinson said the the county received about $800,000 in federal grants for the project. When the county took bids on the work last year, the work was estimated to cost around $1.7 million. The county is rebidding the project and eliminating some requirements, including a large shade covering over a portion of the Quitewater Beach amphitheater.
“We hope to get the price down, we don’t know if that will happen,” said Robinson, who echoed Forte’s concerns about construction material and labor cost increases related to the recent hurricanes.
The ferry service had been scheduled to start this spring but was pushed back a year because of problems finding a company to operate the two National Park Service ferries and because of delays in building landing sites in Pensacola and at the beach.
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The two, 150-passenger ferries named Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch arrived in Pensacola from a Bellingham, Washington, shipyard in April. The ferries have been in dry dock since.
The National Park Service purchased the ferries with restitution funds paid by oil giant BP in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Gulf Islands National Seashore is spearheading the project.
Dan Brown, Gulf Islands superintendent, said the ferry landing at Fort Pickens is ready to go and Pensacola expected to complete its landing by spring. The city will use temporary ticket kiosks and bathrooms through 2019, when a permanent dockside building is scheduled to open.
Brown said the National Park Service will issue another request for bids from ferry operators soon. Officials have changed some of the bid criteria and expect to have more success in finding a company to operate the ferries, he said.
Assuming all goes well in finding a ferry operator, the final piece of the puzzle is the county landing site at Quietwater Beach, he said.
“It is still possible, if everything goes according to plan, for service to start in May,” he said.
All three landing sites must be ready for the service to start, he said.
“This has always been planned as a three-legged route. All of the studies have indicated that the greatest percentage of ridership will be between the city of Pensacola and Pensacola Beach,” he said.
Without all three locations open, the plan would not be financially viable, he said.
“There are a whole lot of moving parts, but we are optimistic,” Brown said.