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County will study car ferry to island
By Jackie R. Broach
Before Georgetown County commits to provide any type of public transportation to Sandy Island, a thorough study needs to take place, County Council members decided this week.
After hearing a request from island residents that the county provide a car ferry, council agreed to form a committee to study its feasibility. It will also investigate a passenger ferry and expanded use of the Sandy Island school boat.
“We need to make a decision based on prudent judgment in this instance, just like we would in any other,” Council Member Glen O’Connell said. “I think we would be negligent if we didn’t.”
Studies have been done before and, to set this one apart and give it value, County Administrator Sel Hemingway urged council to commit to a timeline and to act it gets a recommendation.
“We will move forward and we hope to do it in short order,” Council Chairman Johnny Morant promised about 15 island residents at the meeting.
About 100 people live on the island.
The Rev. George Weathers, the unofficial “mayor” of Sandy Island, said he was satisfied with council’s action. Island residents have heard promises from officials before, but “I do believe this council will move forward,” he said.
Once the committee is appointed and meets, council should have an idea of when it can expect a recommendation and can pass that information on to residents, Morant said.
The committee will include representatives from the island, council, the Georgetown County School District, Coast Regional Transportation Authority, Waccamaw Council of Governments and the state Department of Transportation.
“We need to be careful to include those with expertise in planning, grant writing, engineering and transportation,” Hemingway told council.
The committee will perform a cost-benefit analysis of each of the three options, identify funding sources and survey island residents about their travel routines.
Morant said input from island residents will be an important part of the study.
The issue of transportation to Sandy Island is one the county has been looking at on and off for more than 30 years.
It was brought to the forefront again by boat accident last month that killed three people. They were traveling home to the island when their boat sank as it neared the island’s dock.
The island can be reached only by boat, and residents use their own boats to travel to the mainland, where they have to go for groceries, work and medical appointments.
Most of the boats are older models and some are in poor condition.
Residents and property owners have asked for a car ferry before and petitioned for a bridge at one point.
On a visit to the island in 2007, Joe Young, former vice chairman of the DOT commission, told residents there was “no point” in asking for a bridge, because of cost and environmental issues.
A passenger ferry was the option with the best chance of success, he told them.
But residents and island property owners said they would rather have a car ferry if they can’t have a bridge, and that’s what they decided to ask for again after a meeting on the island Monday.
In the 1970s, Georgetown County purchased a car ferry for the island, but it was never put into service.
Each of the three options the county is considering presents its own set of challenges, Hemingway said.
The island’s community dock is on the Waccamaw River. Resident travel about three-quarters of a mile along a canal from Sandy Island Landing on the mainland to reach the river, which is 700 feet wide at that point. It would be hard for a loaded ferry to get through the shallow canal.
A bridge or causeway would likely have to be built along the canal to the river for cars to reach the ferry, Hemingway said. The ferry would also need a place to dock on each side of the river.
“There would have to be land improvements on both sides,” he said.
The option that could be put in place quickly is expansion of school boat service. A bill in the legislature would change state law to allow the school boat to serve as a passenger ferry, but there are concerns over liability and who would pay for the additional trips.
The state Department of Education, which owns the school boat, estimated it would cost $15,000 a year to expand the service. Hemingway and council members estimate a much higher cost.
The school boat is not handicapped-accessible and noise is an issue.
A drawback to a passenger ferry, whether by school boat or another craft, is limited space for passengers to transport packages.
One reason island residents want a car ferry is it could accommodate building materials, large appliances and household items, as well as carrying emergency vehicles, Weathers said.
Island residents agreed expansion of school boat services should be viewed only as a temporary solution, he said.