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- 2012 - June - 7th -

Ferry funding needed by end of June

by Joe Wilhelm Jr., Staff Writer

A City Council ad hoc committee wants funding commitments by the end of June to keep the St. Johns River Ferry afloat.

“From here forward, if you are going to save [the ferry], it’s all about funding,” said Council member Bill Gulliford, chairman of the council’s Ad Hoc Committee on Funding the St. Johns River Ferry.

The committee met Wednesday after reviewing a ridership study by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The committee also hosted Greg Dronkert, president of HMS Ferries Inc., which is contracted to operate the St. Johns River Ferry for the City.

HMS Ferries, a division of HMS Global Maritime, operates ferry services throughout the country.

The Jacksonville Port Authority plans to stop operating the ferry on Sept. 30, the end of the port’s fiscal year, citing costs of operation and upkeep.

The ferry connects the north and south ends of Florida A1A in Duval County, linking Mayport Village and Fort George Island.

The 0.9-mile ferry ride saves motorists 24 miles that they would have to drive if they used the Dames Point Bridge to cross the river.

Saying “I can play numbers real quick,” Gulliford suggested that $100,000 come from the JPA, $100,000 from the Jacksonville Transportation Authority and $100,000 from bed taxes.

The bed tax is the local-option tourist development tax authorized to counties by Florida statutes. The Duval County Tourist Development Council oversees the collection and distribution of the tax.

“Maybe pick up a little something from beach communities, and businesses interests would kick a little money in,” Gulliford said.

The $300,000 represents half of the $600,000 the committee estimates is the annual cost to operate the ferry.

Gulliford has stated that the funding plan is to find half of the money locally and ask the state to match it.

Gulliford said he had a list of about 30 stakeholders affected by the operation of the ferry who could be contacted for a funding commitment.

The JPA, JTA and the bed tax topped the list of options.

State Rep. Mike Weinstein (R-Orange Park) said support from the stakeholders will help convince the state that the ferry is a necessary service.

“What the state is looking for is an illustration that the community really believes in (the ferry) and will step up to help fund it,” Weinstein said.

“I think all the elements should have a part to play even if it’s minimal. It’s a Nassau County issue. It’s a Beaches issue. It’s a Tourist Development Council issue. It’s a City issue. It’s a state issue. Even a JTA issue,” he said.

Weinstein said he is optimistic about the ferry.

“I think it is very doable, but we have to have every stakeholder have some investment in the plan,” he said.

The ridership study found that BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards is the largest employer generating work trips.

Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Aaron Bowman, BAE Systems Southeast Shipyards director of business operations, attended the meeting.

“Does it save you time by using the ferry and how much time would it add to your employee cost if you had to make the run over the Dames Point Bridge?” asked Council member Matt Schellenberg.

“If the ferry went away, we would change the way we do business,” said Bowman.

In the event funding is not found, Dronkert told the committee that HMS needed to give its employees 30-45 days’ notice before halting service.

Weinstein said he is working on a nine to 12-month extension for the ferry so the issue can be discussed during the legislation session in March and April.

He also questioned Dronkert about the safety of the ferry.

“If we were to extend the contract nine months, 12 months, would you feel that there are any operational, mechanical or safety issues that would need to be addressed if we extended service for nine more months?” asked Weinstein.

“The short answer is no,” Dronkert said.

“The vessel is operationally sound and it is a very tight operation. We don’t see any logistical or operational issues with operating the ferry itself,” he said.

Dronkert said he was not qualified to speak to the engineering issues on the terminals, “but our level of confidence is high in being able to continue to operate with the terminals as-is in that timeframe.”

Dronkert assured Weinstein that the ferry wouldn’t leave the terminal if he believed otherwise.

“We would flat not operate if we had safety concerns,” Dronkert said.

Another concern is who would operate the ferry if funding is found.

The St. Johns River Ferry Commission was created as the City entity to operate the ferry. While there are no appointments yet, a resolution is scheduled to be introduced to Council recommending that Council member John Crescimbeni serve as chairman.

The resolution is scheduled to be presented to Council June 12.

jwilhelm@baileypub.com

356-2466

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