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Sandy Island: County looks at funding for ferry service

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A request for proposals to provide ferry service to Sandy Island received only one response and officials won’t know if it’s one they’ll accept until they know how much money is available for the service.

“Our hope is to receive federal and local funding to the extent available, but that will take some time,” said Myers Rollins, general manager of Coast Regional Transportation Authority.

As for how much time, he can’t say.

Coast RTA, which is working with Georgetown County and the school district to contract a ferry service that would replace the Sandy Island school boat and work as a public passenger ferry, has already started the application process for federal dollars.

The group is also working to find new funding streams to support the service.

“We have potential sources,” he explained. “If those come through in December, it will allow us to move forward quicker than if they come through in March.”

But it’s already been eight months since the county started looking into creating a public ferry system for island residents, who use private boats to travel between the island and the mainland.

The island is accessible only by boat and residents have been pushing for a more reliable means of transportation for decades.

The issue was brought to the forefront again in February, when three island residents drowned after their boat started taking on water as they traveled home.

“I know it takes time for something like this,” said the Rev. George Weathers, who is known as the “unofficial mayor” of Sandy Island.

He said his larger concern at the moment is that local officials haven’t kept island resident apprised of their progress.

“I haven’t heard anything recently,” Weathers said. “The way they went about it, I don’t like it too well, because we weren’t contacted about the arrangements that are being made. I feel like the community should know what they’re trying to get for them instead of them going ahead and getting something without contacting us.”

A community meeting is being planned for Sandy Island residents to discuss the county’s progress, Weathers said.

Georgetown County wants to contract a vessel that can carry at least 35 people to make a minimum of four trips a day, seven days a week, according to a request for proposals Coast RTA issued in September. Two of those trips would be scheduled to get students to and from school.

Rollins said the number of trips and days of operation might change depending on how much money is available to fund the service.

“We have the option to modify if we determine the scope is too large,” Rollins said. “It’s important that we put a service in place that we’ll be able to sustain.”

Coast RTA will meet with the ferry owner who submitted a quote for service to discuss the possibility of a contract and inspect the boat and back-up vessel to be used if a contract is awarded.

Rollins refused to say who submitted the proposal or what price was quoted.

Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said he was disappointed that the request for proposals received only one response. An initial request for information sent out this summer to gauge interest in providing ferry service for the county generated three responses.

“I hoped for more,” Hemingway said. “I expected at least those who submitted in the first part of the process would respond.”

He isn’t sure what might have deterred others from sending in a quote.

Shannon Kirk, who attended a proposal review meeting in Georgetown on Monday, said his business, Great American Riverboat Company of Myrtle Beach, didn’t submit a quote because the length of the contract offered wasn’t long enough to make it advantageous.

The proposal specified a one-year agreement for services, with the option to renew for three additional one-year terms. The initial agreement would begin Nov. 15.

Kirk said he has “realized for a long time something needs to be done” to make transportation for Sandy Island residents safer and attended the meeting as an advocate for a ferry system.

But Kirk left and didn’t return when officials retreated into executive session right after the meeting started.

After Coast RTA knows how much it can budget for a ferry service and has met with the company that submitted the quote, it will make a recommendation to the Sandy Island task force, a group of local officials, island residents and transportation experts formed to make a decision on establishing a ferry system for the island.

Rollins said he wants to move the process along as fast as possible, but it’s imperative to “do this well, as well as quickly,” ensuring the service can be maintained.

“What’s uppermost in our minds is to give the school district a level of confidence that we can sustain this over multiple years,” Rollins said.

Randy Dozier, Georgetown County School District superintendent, said even if something did happen to keep the contract from being carried out, students would still be transported to school. Ferry service has been contracted before on a short-term basis in incidents where the school boat was out of service for repairs.

The school district and state department of education would both contribute to funding a ferry service, though it hasn’t been established how much.

The district spends $11,246 a year on the school boat captain’s salary and a vehicle on the island that transports students once they reach the dock.

The state spends $14,175 a year on regular maintenance and another $1,000 on fuel and inspection fees.

Costs are significantly higher when the boat needs major repairs. And, Dozier said, it needs to be taken into consideration that the current school boat is 41 years old. He said it was recommended several years ago that the boat be replaced, something that would cost $150,000 to $300,000, but funding for a replacement wasn’t available.

The service the county wants to contract would include a captain and first mate to operate the boat, and cover insurance, repairs and maintenance.

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