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Sandy Island: Transit group thinks funds available for ferry

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Transit officials believe federal funds could be used to expand the state-owned school boat to serve as a passenger ferry for Sandy Island residents. Coast Regional Transportation Authority and the Georgetown County School District are due to meet in the next two weeks to discuss funding.

A survey of 61 Sandy Island residents and property owners found 70 percent believe using the school boat for passengers is the best short-term solution to improving safety.

Three residents drowned in February when their boat sank as they crossed the Waccamaw River in a storm.

Coast RTA used the surveys to ask residents, property owners and those with ties to the community about their travel habits and opinions about a ferry service.

After reviewing the survey results this week, members of a study committee formed by County Council agreed the school boat has the most potential as a short-term fix.

Committee members want to move forward with expanding use of the school boat while they begin work to find a long-term solution, something that could take two years and “a minimum of $2.5 million,” according to a rough estimate from committee member Bob Perry of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

Legislation to allow the school boat to serve as a ferry passed this month. The boat could be put into service quickly if funds can be found, giving island residents a safer way to travel.

Sandy Island is accessible only by boat and residents use small boats for daily travel. Many of the boats are in poor condition, and weather and the wakes from larger boats can make crossing the Waccamaw River risky.

The legislation doesn’t specify how expanded use of the school boat would be funded or how many additional trips would be needed. The surveys did provide some guidance as to number and frequency of trips, however.

Participants said ferry service is needed seven days a week and would be most useful from 6 a.m. to noon and 2 to 8 p.m.

“There are still things we need answers to,” said Myers Rollins Jr., general manager of Coast RTA. “The big question is what is the school district’s position? If their posture is that they don’t want to do this, all other discussion becomes academic.”

Rollins told the committee he believes Coast RTA will be able to get federal funds to use the school boat, but they need the district’s approval to pursue those funds.

The committee did consider purchasing a boat from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use as a passenger ferry, but the Rev. George Weathers, a community leader on Sandy Island, was concerned it wouldn’t be able to hold as many people.

Coast RTA and the school district are to meet within the next two weeks. After that, the committee will meet again to discuss the results and move forward.

The committee has started research into whether a car ferry is a viable long-term solution. Members will gather information about the depth and width of the canal from Sandy Island landing to the Waccamaw River to determine if it could accommodate a car ferry, and what improvements would have to be made on the mainland and the island.

A community meeting on Sandy Island in March revealed residents prefer a car ferry as the long-term solution. Of those surveyed, 64 percent selected that as the long-term solution.

And 76 percent approve of making the ferry available to non-residents.

Twenty percent favor expanded use of the school boat as a long-term solution.

Those surveyed overwhelmingly said health and safety are the main reasons they would use a ferry. According to the surveys, doctors visits and medical care are the reason for 27 percent of trips to the mainland, coming in well ahead of work and shopping.

Comments on the surveys noted that a ferry would be helpful for senior citizens, who have trouble getting in and out of the small boats.

More than half of responders listed the primary reason they would use a ferry as “economical.” Asked about a reasonable fare, 47 percent of those surveyed said they would pay $1.50 to $2.50 per ride.

Rollins said he isn’t sure about the margin of error for the survey, but “I think it’s statistically relevant.”

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