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    Sandy Island: School boat bill moves to Senate

    A bill that would allow the Sandy Island school boat to be used as a passenger ferry was passed by the state House of Representatives Wednesday and is expected to receive first reading by the Senate today.

    If it is passed there and receives approval by the governor, it will mean a safer way for Sandy Island residents to cross the Waccamaw River as they go about their business.

    Located along the Intracoastal Waterway between the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers, the island is accessible only by boat.

    State Rep. Vida Miller, who sponsored the bill with Rep. Carl Anderson, planned to speak to members of the Senate when the bill was introduced Wednesday. She said she doesn’t foresee any problems in getting the bill put through.

    “We’re trying to push this along as quickly as possible,” Miller said.

    The bill would allow any resident of Sandy Island to be transported on the school boat, on a space available basis, by presenting verification of residence to the boat captain. People who are not residents of the Island would be able to use the boat when accompanied by a resident.

    The boat is owned by the state Department of Education and used to transport students who live on Sandy Island to the mainland, where they board a school bus. Students would always be given priority of carriage on school routes.

    The bill would enable the boat to make additional trips, but a schedule and how the trips will be funded have not been decided. That should be a local decision and not decided through legislation, Miller said.

    It’s is estimated that the additional trips would cost about $15,000 annually. The Department of Education agreed to the extra trips and will continue to provide maintenance of the boat, but won’t pay for the costs associated with the additional trips, including fuel and a captain.

    Miller has some ideas about where to look for funding and has “spoken to some folks back home,” she said from the State House this week, but has been focusing on getting the legislation passed first.

    Miller started work drafting the bill last week in reaction to a boat accident that killed three people. Lou Ann Robinson, 47, Shaquatia Robinson, 19, and Rishard Pyatt, 18, drowned after the 14-foot boat they were traveling in sank on the way to Sandy Island just before 9 p.m. Feb. 18. Three others on the boat survived, including Shaquatia Robinson’s 11-month-old son, Zyair.

    It will be next week before the Department of Natural Resources sends divers to attempt to raise the boat, said Lt. Robert McCullough, an agency spokesman.

    The 1973 fiberglass boat was registered to the operator, Tiffany Tucker. Investigators hope that raising the boat will provide clues to the cause of the sinking.

    In the meantime, they are gathering other information, McCullough said.

    “The problem with an investigation on the water is that it’s never static,” McCullough said. “It’s not like a traffic accident where there are skid marks.”

    Most families on Sandy Island own small boats, like the one that sank, for travel to and from the mainland. It can be a dangerous crossing in bad weather and when they encounter larger boats, the drivers of which often don’t slow down and don’t consider the effect their wake has on smaller boats.

    Island residents have petitioned for a safer way to cross the river for years. They have asked for a bridge, but because of the huge costs associated with that most agree a car ferry would be the best solution.

    As an immediate fix, however, they are pleased with the bill under consideration.

    “It’s not a solution, but it’s a good first step,” said Charles Pyatt, a Sandy Island resident. “If you talk to 90 percent of the residents, I think they’ll tell you they prefer a car ferry, but at least this is better than what we’ve got now.”

    The school boat will be especially helpful for the island’s elderly residents, he said.

    “My dad, he’s 94 and can’t hardly get into those small boats,” Pyatt said.

    It will also be good for residents who don’t have boats and have to “catch a ride,” he added.

    Miller said it’s important to her that island residents have some input in the schedule for extra trips. She plans to travel to the island one day next week to explain the bill to residents and get input, she said.

    Pyatt said he thinks weekend trips would be of the most use to the most people.

    “It’s mostly on the weekends when people are going over and getting groceries and stuff like that,” he said. “That would definitely be a good time.

    A Sunday trip would also be helpful for those who attend church services on the island.

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