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Photo by Joe Wilhelm Jr. - James Bennett, Florida Department of Transportation District Two Urban Transportation Development manager, proposes a study of the ridership of the St. Johns River Ferry. He spoke Thursday at a meeting of the City Council Ad...
Jax Daily Record Friday, Mar. 9, 201212:00 PM EST

FDOT to sponsor study of St. Johns River Ferry

by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

A representative of the Florida Department of Transportation offered Thursday to conduct a study about ridership on the St. Johns River Ferry to help with City efforts to find funding for the service.

James Bennett, Urban Transportation Development manager of District Two, told the City Council Ad Hoc Committee on Funding the St. Johns River Ferry that the department would conduct the study to see how critical the ferry is to the area.

The Jacksonville Port Authority recently voted to discontinue its operation of the ferry at the end of September. The ferry links Florida A1A at Mayport.

Council member Bill Gulliford, who represents the Beaches, created the committee to review possible funding sources to continue the ferry service.

The state transportation department initially considered the Dames Point Bridge and the Wonderwood Expressway as replacement routes for ferry users.

“I think what is lacking right now that is really needed before a determination is made on how to move forward is who is the ferry serving? Where are they coming from? Where are they going?” asked Bennett.

“To have an understanding of how critical it is, or not critical, you have to understand who is using the ferry. I think there is a lack of that information right now and the department is interested in having that data,” he said.

“We’d like to offer up the opportunity to do an origins and destination study,” he said.

Bennett explained that his staff would visit the parking lots of the ferry in Mayport to talk to people and gather basic data, “facts, not emotion.”

The department will meet with stakeholders to discuss the questions that will be asked and then dispatch staff for two one-week periods to gather the information.

“They can ask basic information: Where are you coming from? Where are you going to? How many people are in the vehicle making that trip? Are they going to work or are they going to shop?” said Bennett.

Bennett said he was aware that some might think the study would be conducted to support the department’s views.

“I am extremely concerned and very cautious about moving forward so that this is done in an unbiased manner. I do not want to appear, when the data is collected, that it has been skewed or biased in any way,” said Bennett.

“I am very much focused and concerned that by the department taking on this effort there may be some concerns raised that it is skewed to favor the department in any way. That is not my interest at all,” he said.

Because of the time sensitivity of finding a funding source for operation and capital improvements of the ferry, Bennett said it would be quickest to use an existing consultant under contract, San Francisco-based URS, for the study.

URS has more than 46,000 employees in a network of offices in more than 40 countries. It provides program management; planning, design and engineering; systems engineering and technical assistance; construction and construction management; operations and maintenance; and decommissioning and closure services.

Bennett suggested that the study start with a meeting of a small working group that would include representatives from the office of State Rep. Janet Adkins, the Ad Hoc Committee and the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, along with Northeast Florida Regional Planning Council CEO Brian Teeple and Ferry Task Force Chairwoman Elaine Brown, who would represent the Jacksonville community.

Committee members Matt Schellenberg and Doyle Carter volunteered for the working group.

“It’s a huge step in the right direction. The study will take the emotion out of it and make the research more factual,” said Gulliford.

The committee meets again at 9:30 a.m. Monday at City Hall.

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