The Monday afternoon meeting of the St. Johns River Ferry Committee was a packed house. The conference room swelled with people, including multiple representatives from the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (which was, at last check, expected but not guaranteed to fully take over responsibility for the Ferry effective Oct. 1).
Turns out that’s not happening this year at all.
The meeting did not go so well. It started off fractiously, and the tone was never fully alleviated.
It got interesting early, with discussions of a confab between Councilman Bill Gulliford and Ed Burr, which one person on the committee called a “weird meeting.” As former Times-Union publisher Carl Cannon, another committee member said, the two “mutually agreed” that the JTA takeover of the ferry would be pushed back to the end of March.
That caused some consternation. And it wasn’t the only moment that did so.
A discussion of necessary repairs got heated when discussion turned to why the first design by the Shaw Group was scuttled.
Councilman John Crescimbeni, chairman of the committee, noted that the design was put on the shelf, but not before $300,000 was spent on it.
Apparently, the price tag was estimated at $4.8 million, but no one was willing to build for that sum.
Rick Morales, another contractor, had a design that was not quite as all-encompassing as that of the Shaw Group. His rendering would accomplish about a third of that original design. And it would have cost more.
Morales identified issues: “The bulkhead has already exceeded the design life.”
The seawalls are having issues as well.
All of that left Crescimbeni “extremely frustrated” about the process, including “spending money to find out what we need to do.”
The Morales plan would not interfere with the ferry’s operation: Six crews working over the course of six weeks while the ferry itself is being serviced would allow them to do enough for the ferry to operate by the time it is returned to Jacksonville.
Cannon was not mollified. The Morales plan, he said, left “steel on wood,” which is not optimal.
“That’s just really bad,” he said of “banging a boat against wooden walls. At least we need pads.”
The wood itself needs remediation: Huge chunks are falling off into the river, and money is going to be an issue. Federal grants, such as those that Lisa King is procuring for the project will help some. However, regarding the $1.8 million budgeted for the haulout (split evenly by the JTA and the COJ), there simply won’t be any more money for that purpose.
The cavalcade of events and procedural indignities became too much for the councilman to bear. Regarding JTA, Crescimbeni said, “I feel like we’re completely out of the loop. We keep trying to look at JTA as a responsible partner,” he said, yet the lack of communication was an issue, and an example of “JTA doing what JTA does best: screw things up.”
“I expected more from JTA,” Crescimbeni said, given the extension of the gas tax.
He described it as “unacceptable.”
Of course, there are positives. The ferry is on track to be profitable through the end of the year. And King knows how to negotiate the grant world; she feels confident about her ability to secure the $5 million to $6 million needed. She framed the process as one of “it takes a bunch of stubborn people” to get this job done.
Still, what has been framed as a relatively smooth transfer process of the ferry to JTA looks considerably less smooth now than it did less than 24 hours ago. And with more delay.