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Gulf Islands Ferry expected to officially start service Dec. 8

Longboat Key will likely be the first stop to be added in a potential ferry expansion, says a Manatee County commissioner.

The Downtown Duchess takes passengers on its inaugural ride along the Manatee River.
The Downtown Duchess takes passengers on its inaugural ride along the Manatee River.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer
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Sitting in weekend traffic may be a thing of the past for those who decide to use Manatee County’s new Gulf Islands Ferry service, which is set to begin Dec. 8. 

The ferries made an inaugural trip on Nov. 20, an event that gave elected officials and media a glimpse into what the service will be like.

At the event were elected officials from the city of Bradenton, city of Anna Maria and Mayor Ken Schneier from Longboat Key. 

Senior Pastor at Roser Church Dirk Rodgers began the event with a prayer, before Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge took the stage.

Van Ostenbridge announced the start date as Dec. 8 in his opening remarks, and also said that the inaugural ferry trip was a “full circle” moment. 

“The first way to get to Anna Maria Island was, of course, by ferry, which sort of brings us full circle,” Van Ostenbridge said. “We’ve all wanted multi-modal transportation, and finally we’ve come this far.”

He commended Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau Executive Director Elliott Falcione for all his hard work on getting the ferry service up and running. 

Senior Pastor at Roser Church Dirk Rodgers and Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge kicked off the Nov. 20 inauguration ceremony.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

Van Ostenbridge said that he wasn’t sure Longboat Key would want a ferry stop there when the idea was first developed, so he didn’t reach out. But after Longboat officials contacted him upset that the town wasn’t included, Van Ostenbridge was excited.

“So I was thrilled that Longboat wanted to be included as a stop and I think that's probably the first stop expansion, it's probably going to be Longboat,” Van Ostenbridge said.

The discussion about adding a stop on Longboat was also mentioned at the Oct. 31 joint meeting between Longboat Key and Manatee County. 

At that meeting, Schneier asked Falcione to provide the town with specific requirements for a dock so that town officials could look into possible sites. 

Though there haven’t been further internal discussions, Schneier said he sees the possibility of a Longboat Key stop in Whitney Beach Plaza, given the county’s interest in the Whitney Plaza Community Center. 

He also said there could be potential for a stop at Bayfront Park, or off Broadway Street. 

“At some point or another, absolutely it’ll be great to have it,” Schneier said. 

A long-term expansion with Sarasota may also be a possibility, Van Ostenbridge said, if Sarasota becomes interested in the ferry service.

The Miss Anna Maria and Downtown Duchess ferries docked at the City of Bradenton Dry Dock.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

The Gulf Islands Ferry will be marketed to visitors and locals alike, presented as an alternative to sitting in traffic on the way to the gulf islands. 

“We've been talking about it for years and years really for decades. And it's finally here. And we're all lucky I think to be a part of it,” Van Ostenbridge said.

Before the ferries set sail, Rodgers gave a blessing to the fleet, preparing the Miss Anna Maria and Downtown Duchess for the first voyages. 

Framework first

Falcione said it was important to get the service up and running first, before advancing conversations for additional stops. 

“It's get the framework in place first, and then expand beyond that,” Falcione said.

The Gulf Islands Ferry was supposed to start in late summer 2023, but was then delayed to start toward the end of the year.

According to Falcione, the ferries themselves cost about $900,000, with an additional $200,000 to $300,000 needed for modifications to make all the boat ramps compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

There will also be an annual $300,000 to $400,000 needed to subsidize the shortfall of the service annually, according to Falcione’s “guesstimate.” 

The majority of this investment is coming from the county’s tourism tax, Falcione said. 

Now, the vessels are in need of final certification, and the ramp needs to be completed at Anna Maria Island. Falcione said as long as those items get completed, the service will start Dec. 8. 

Captain Ted Shonts commands the Miss Anna Maria ferry along the Manatee River.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

Falcione mentioned he’s also had good conversations with officials in Holmes Beach about adding a stop there in the near future — after the service gets going. 

“So we'll figure out a way to partner with (Holmes Beach) as well as you know, we're going to be looking at Longboat Key and look at a stopping point or two there,” Falcione said.

Falcione also said there’s a plan in the works to expand the service to include a service worker express ferry, exclusively for service workers traveling to the gulf islands for work.



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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