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Sandy Island: Transit board rescinds bid for Alabama ferry

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Accepting a car ferry that was awarded to the state Department of Transportation for use at Sandy Island would be a “bad business decision,” according to the regional transportation authority’s board of directors.

That was the reason the group gave Wednesday when it voted unanimously, on the advice of Coast RTA general manager Myers Rollins, to rescind a letter that accepted the ferry.

But that won’t be the end of efforts to get a ferry for the island.

“I think it’s clear the intent was that there still needs to be a solution for the Sandy Island transportation problem, but this ferry was not it,” said board member Glen O’Connell.

The decision to rescind the letter factored in hurdles to operating the ferry that Rollins has voiced previously, such as the high cost of landing improvements needed to allow a car ferry to operate between the island and the mainland. That would cost a minimum of $200,000, he said.

To that argument, he added questions about the vessel’s viability.

“He indicated it has never been certified by the Coast Guard in Alabama and if some superstructure is put on the boat, it would be an issue potentially in terms of getting it certified, given that it wasn’t built to accommodate that,” O’Connell said.

Coast RTA wanted to build a shelter on the vessel to accommodate passengers not traveling in vehicles.

The three-car ferry was awarded to the state by the Federal Highway Administration after Etowah County, Ala., used grant funds from the administration to have the boat built, then decided it would be too expensive to operate, at $225,000 a year.

Cost of operations and “landside improvements,” the impact of added weight of a cabin and passengers on the vessel’s carrying capacity and certification were among issues Georgetown County Council Chairman Johnny Morant raised in a letter he sent to board chair woman Katherine D’Angelo this week.

The letter was in response to one sent to Morant last month asking for an indication that the county will commit funding toward a ferry service.

Morant’s letter didn’t indicate the county wouldn’t commit funding, but said questions needed to be answered before the ferry was accepted.

About two dozen people turned up at the meeting this week to support accepting the ferry. Most were island residents or people with ties to the island, but there was also a representative of the NAACP and members of a local AME church.

The island is a predominantly black community. It is home to about 100 people and is accessible only by boat.

Island residents were disappointed by the outcome of Wednesday’s meeting, but they aren’t giving up on their fight for a car ferry.

Rollins has advised a passenger ferry would be a more feasible option, but island residents won’t be swayed.

“I know we’ve got critics out there and there are people who want us to throw in the towel, but we’re not going to do it,” said Charles Pyatt. He’s an island resident and CEO of the Sandy Island Ferry Project, a group organized this year to raise money to help transport the Alabama ferry to Georgetown County.

Pyatt understands why the ferry was turned down.

“We don’t want to bring something here that probably wouldn’t pass inspection,” he said. “If it’s not going to be safe, I accept that, but we’re not going to stop. We’re going to fight on. This has been going on for 40 years and if we stop it will probably be another 40 years.”

Their decades-long quest was given new urgency two years ago when three people drowned while traveling home to the island one night during a storm. Their boat capsized.

Since forming in May, the ferry project group has raised just under $30,000 toward a ferry. The group’s initial goal was $40,000, but it’s raising the mark.

“Who knows, we might have to buy a ferry all by ourselves,” Pyatt said.

Letters thanking those who have donated and updating them on the situation and how funds will be used are being sent out soon.

Then, “we’re going to take a week or two off to gather our thoughts and push forward,” Pyatt said.

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