It was not a huge surprise when the Jacksonville Port Authority this week announced that it could no longer subsidize the Mayport Ferry. Short of an extraordinary rescue effort, the shortest distance between two points connecting Florida A1A may be severed.
Jaxport took over the ferry operations in 2007 as part of the negotiations to acquire several parcels of land where it intended to build a cruise ship terminal in Mayport village. With the cruise business now low on the Port Authority’s priority list, it looks like the ferry is as well.
In operation since 1948, the ferry has seen declining ridership in recent years. The number of cars taking the shortcut across the river fell to under 300,000 last year, in part because of a substantial fare increase from $3.00 to $5.00 each way in 2009. But there are a variety of reasons for the decline. Completion of the Wonderwood bridge and expressway have reduced the time it takes to drive around to Heckscher Drive. But it’s still a long way over to re-join A1A to get up to Big and Little Talbot Islands from I295. And when the ferry goes out of service for maintenance, which any vessel seeing as much work as the Mayport ferry does needs regularly, there is no backup. The backup ferry (pictured below) was retired a few years back, and so people are forced to make the drive when the MV Blackbeard is in dry dock. Once they get out of the habit of taking the ferry, many never return. A replacement for the backup boat would cost as much as $13 million by most estimations. So when the Blackbeard needs maintenance, there will continue to be interruptions in service.
So the Port Authority says it can no longer afford to continue to prop up the ferry, and do the maintenance on the boat or the dock facilities. They say they will return ownership of the ferry to the city, which their contract to operate the service allows them to do. But Mayor Alvin Brown almost immediately said it would be very difficult for the city to operate the boat. Local activist who led the charge to save the ferry the last time it was threatened say that it will be a long and difficult lobbying effort to pull that off again. The state is facing a $2 billion deficit in its upcoming legislative session, and money for the ferry would be nothing but an earmark at the federal level. We all know there is no room for (most) earmarks in the federal budget.
By most accounts, losing the ferry would be a death knell for the village of Mayport, and a couple restaurants and other small businesses on the west side of the river would certainly struggle. With no drive-through traffic taking the ferry, businesses like Singleton’s Sea Food could lose a substantial percentage of their patrons. Safe Harbor seafood might make it for a while, but their retail business might certainly fall off with no drive-through traffic using the ferry. With no reason for people to go to Mayport, the village might well wither and die.
If it goes, I’ll certainly miss the ferry. A trip to Big or Little Talbot island, the Timucuan Preserve, Kingsley Plantation, Fort Clinch, or Amelia Island won’t be the same without the short ride across the river. Adding 20 miles to get back to A1A for one of the most scenic drives in the state, particularly in a convertible, will mean we’ll go less often.
I hope the ferry will be able to make it. It’s one of the things that add character to our island, and as someone who has spent a lot of time on the water, I’m consistently impressed with the seamanship demonstrated by the ferry captains as they fight wind, tides, and current in a boat that is far from the most maneuverable on the river to slide it into its slip time after time. It’s never the same twice, and it was the rare ferry ride that ended in anything but a gentle nudge against the dock. And it was always a pleasure when BJ was directing traffic onto or off of the boat.
Councilman Bill Gulliford is holding a town hall meeting January 19th to discuss the ferry issue at Fletcher High School in Jacksonville Beach. I’d be there but I’ve already paid for a ticket to the Chamber of Commerce annual meeting that same evening.
It will be a sad day if the Mayport ferry is forced to stop its trips back and forth across the river. Add my voice to those who support maintaining the ferry, and hope it can be preserved. I’m not sure where the money comes from. City governments from Jacksonville to the beach communities are strapped for cash, and the ferry is a low priority. Like so many things in life, the Mayport ferry may be one of those things that “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”