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Sandy Island: Grant shapes ferry plans

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Buying a boat to provide ferry service to Sandy Island became a more attractive option with approval of a $100,480 state grant last week, officials say.

The purchase would require a smaller match than contracting with someone to provide the service and could get service started sooner, said Myers Rollins, general manager of Coast Regional Transportation Authority.

If used to contract for service, the grant would have to be matched by local funds. Buying a boat only requires a 20 percent match, Rollins said. The remainder of the grant could be used to contract with an operator. The match for those funds would still be 50-50.

Rollins hasn’t run the suggestion by the S.C. Department of Transportation, which administers the funds, or members of the committee created by Georgetown County Council to explore the feasibility of ferry service to the island.

He said he’ll try to arrange a “brainstorming session” with heads of the subcommittee in the next couple of weeks to discuss possible scenarios. That will have to take place before Coast RTA can move forward with reissuing a request for proposals to provide ferry service.

After a two-hour meeting Friday morning, the committee instructed Coast RTA to revise and reissue a request for proposals it sent out in September. That meeting took place before news of the grant approval was announced that afternoon.

The original request drew a number of inquiries from interested contractors, Rollins said, but only one bid was submitted. It came in at $236,000.

“We received six to 10 calls from prospective bidders. My expectation was that we would be flooded with bids,” Rollins told the committee. “The reality is after we let the document, we think the scope served as a disincentive.”

He said he believes changes to the request, including elimination of a requirement that the contractor own a second vessel that would serve as a backup, would draw more bidders.

The new request would allow bidders to agree to lease another vessel if the primary vessel is out of service.

Instead of including hours of operation and specific number of trips to be made in the request, Rollins also suggested using a “design-build” approach that would let potential bidders know how much money is available for a contract and submit a proposal outlining what they can offer for that amount.

A prebid conference was also to be added to allow potential bidders to ask questions before submitting proposals.

With limited funding, Rollins said a phased approach may need to be used if the county contracts ferry service. That would start a ferry system with weekend trips or one or two trips a day and increase trips over time.

Rollins said Coast RTA may end up claiming only a portion of the bid initially, depending on how much funding can be located for a match.

The remainder of the award would be held until the rest of the match could be obtained. Rollins said he sees the state grant as a short-term solution for funding a ferry service and hopes to receive federal funding that would provide more long-term support. Coast RTA has applied for a $426,355 surface transportation grant.

Friday’s committee meeting raised questions about whether the passenger ferry service the county is looking at would be utilized.

The Rev. George Weathers, a member of the committee and “the unofficial mayor” of Sandy Island, said residents would prefer a two-car ferry to a passenger ferry.

“If it only made one trip a day or two trips a day, they would be more pleased with that,” Weathers said.

He said island residents made that clear to him during a recent community meeting. The island is accessible only by boat and residents use small, personal vessels for access. A car ferry would allow them to more easily transport groceries, large appliances and building materials.

A passenger ferry would help island residents who don’t have boats, Weathers said, but “people with boats, a passenger ferry won’t help them.”

He said residents with boats would likely choose to take their own boats across the water, rather than wait an hour or two for a passenger ferry.

“If they have this two-car ferry, they can drive their car to their door on weekends when they have groceries,” Weathers said, adding that would be more helpful to island residents.

Judge Isaac Pyatt questioned that logic. Cars taken to the island would be stuck there until the owners could get them on a return trip.

“They need to know the facts,” Pyatt said. “That one trip over there, they might think it’s a good idea right now, because they don’t have anything to compare it with, but if your car is over there and you need to go to a funeral or church or whatever, you’re stuck.

We need to be realistic,” Pyatt said.

Bob Perry of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said residents taking their vehicles to the island would also have to be prepared for longer delays in getting them back to the mainland if the ferry is out of service.

“Even if you have two trips a day, say on Saturday, that means four cars will get the opportunity to go that whole day,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway added, “so how do you choose which four residents get to go to the grocery store that day?”

The committee reviewed proposed costs for several ferry options, including a two-car ferry capable of transporting six passengers.

Perry said it would take at least 18 to 24 months and about $1.5 million to $2.5 million to design, build and put into operation a two-car ferry system, including docking on each end of the trip.

Based on 16 daily trips, he estimated operation would cost a minimum of $250,000 for the first year, with costs continuing to increase each year due to marine maintenance needs.

After five years, the annual operation costs are estimated to be $400,000, he said.

Perry suggested a solution might be purchasing a barge to transport cars and getting a boat to push it. It could be done more cheaply than purchasing a car ferry, he said.

The county would still face the problem of getting a boat to move the barge and deciding how often trips should be made.

A passenger ferry run by the county would operate in addition to the Sandy Island school boat. Plans were originally to have a ferry serve both purposes, but the school district had concerns about getting grant funds to maintain the service long-term.

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