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Sandy Island: Costs for ferry hard to pin down

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

It will cost more than $3 million to start a car ferry between the Waccamaw Neck and Sandy Island, and $916,000 a year to operate, according to figures compiled by Georgetown County.

Or maybe not.

"That was a hard thing to do because there are not a lot of comparisons out there," said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. He produced the estimate in 2007, shortly after state Transportation Commission members met with island residents, who asked the state to help improve access.

A committee of local and state officials along with island residents is due to take another look at the issue.

Johnson researched the issue on the Internet. "I found tons of ferry boat information, especially up north, but they take hundreds of cars," he said. "We were looking for a seven-car ferry."

So he based his cost estimate on a 1977 report from the state Department of Transportation. The county bought a used ferry from North Carolina in 1972 and the state highway department, as it was then known, was supposed start a service to Sandy Island.

But the department concluded that it would be cheaper in the long run to build a bridge across the Waccamaw River than operate a ferry.

One reason was that the ferry, a Navy surplus landing craft, was deemed unsafe and needed a major overhaul. Another factor was the cost of staffing a ferry.

Based on North Carolina standards, the 1977 report, and Johnson’s update 30 years later, it was estimated that five crews of four employees would be needed to run the ferry.

Keith Livingston pilots the ferryboat Tina Fallon across the Nanticoke River in Delaware. The ferry is not quite 65 feet in length and carries six cars. He has one crew member.

It takes about two minutes to cross the 500-foot-wide river at Woodland Ferry. The ferry runs on demand. “We can see both sides,” Livingston said.

The ferry carries about 50,000 cars a year. The Delaware Department of Transportation wanted to replace the ferry with a bridge, said Tina Shockley, an agency spokeswoman, but Woodland Ferry residents objected. And they had history on their side.

The Woodland Ferry has run since the 1740s. The state of Delaware chartered the ferry in 1792, provided it didn’t charge for its service.

While the ferry is free to ride, it cost the state almost $1 million to replace the ferry last year. It was custom built at a nearby shipyard. It cost another $1.8 million to make improvements to the landings.

Those costs are in line with Johnson’s estimates for a Sandy Island ferry. But his estimate of $185,000 for annual maintenance are higher than the actual costs for the Woodland Ferry.

Delaware budgets $35,000 a year for maintenance of the ferry and the landings, Shockley said.

Livingston and the two other boat captains, and the deckhands, are part of the Delaware DOT maintenance staff, so their salaries aren’t broken out for the ferry service, she said.

The fact that the Woodland Ferry is under 65 feet is important, Livingston said. Any longer and the Coast Guard would require that the deck hands be certified, he said.

Livington has a Coast Guard license to operate a ship up to 100 tons. The Woodland Ferry is just under 90 tons.

The ferry is big enough to carry fire trucks and school buses, but has a draft of just two-and-a-half feet.

While the Waccamaw River is about 700 feet wide at Sandy Island’s community dock, there is a canal that runs three-quarters of a mile from the river to the mainland landing. None of the estimates for a ferry include dredging the canal. “That would obviously be very expensive,” Johnson said.

The Waccamaw and Nanticoke rivers have other similarities. They are both used by recreational and commercial boat traffic. They are both affected by the tides and can have a swift current.

The Woodland Ferry uses a cable to guide it between landings. The cable drops to the bottom of the river when not in use.

“Even if the current’s slack, if there’s any wind at all you need the cable,” Livingston said.

The ferry is powered by a six-cylinder turbocharged John Deere engine rated at 300 horsepower.

The Woodland Ferry only runs during daylight hours. It could run at night, but Livingston said the cable would complicate that, since river traffic must stop for the ferry.

People who travel the Woodland Ferry have other ways to cross the Nanticoke River, but Livingston said people often go out of their way to take it.

“We get a lot of people through here,” he said. “I see the out-of-state tags.”

The Woodland Ferry replacement was funded with $2.5 million from the federal government. If the committee looking at Sandy Island transportation options settles on a car ferry, it is likely to be looking for similar help.

“The truth of the matter is that we can’t afford it,” said Dave Bodle, marketing director for Coast Regional Transit Authority. The agency director is one of nine people who will serve on the Sandy Island committee.

“I don’t think Georgetown County has the money. We know the schools are strapped. We’re going to have to look at the state and federal government,” Bodle said.

While a Sandy Island ferry would probably qualify for federal stimulus funds as a project to help people get to work, it came too late in the process, Bodle said.

Like Johnson, Coast RTA is looking for similar ferry operations to use as a model for costs. The agency isn’t deterred.

“If there’s some loose stimulus money, we’ll find it,” Bodle said.

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