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Agency considers 3-car ferry for Sandy Island

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Coast Regional Transportation Authority is trying to acquire a three-car ferry from a county in Alabama to provide transportation to and from Sandy Island.

The agency’s board of directors recently passed a resolution authorizing Myers Rollins Jr., general manager of Coast RTA, to pursue obtaining the vessel. If the bid is successful, the ferry, appraised at $247,500, would essentially be given to the agency, though it would have to pay to have the ferry moved here.

“It’s a little complicated, but the short of it is it’s a federally-purchased vessel, and we have the possibility of acquiring it at no cost,” he said.

The agency would then face the challenge of paying to operate a ferry service. Though Coast RTA has a $100,480 state grant that could be used for operation, it can’t use those funds until it can provide a match. The agency has been searching diligently for a source to provide the match since receiving the grant in November, Rollins said.

He isn’t sure what the annual cost would be to operate the service, because it hasn’t been determined how many days it would run or how many daily trips it would make The cost of operation is the reason Etowah County, Ala., is seeking to get rid of the ferry. The county commissioned the craft to be built about 10 years ago using a $304,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and contributing $89,000 in county funds toward the cost.

The ferry was intended run a quarter-mile river route, but after being delivered about four years behind schedule, it was never put into service, said Patrick Simms, CEO of Etowah County, a title equivalent to county administrator.

It would have cost the county about $225,000 a year to operate the craft and county officials decided they weren’t willing to spend that much to provide the service, Simms said.

The county tried for about two years to sell the ferry, but couldn’t get the price it wanted. So it agreed to let the highway administration award the ferry to someone else.

“We’re going to cut our losses,” Simms said.

Neither he nor Rollins has been told when the administration might make a decision on who gets the ferry, but Simms said several communities have expressed an interest in the boat.

“It’s a nice ferry and would serve someone well who has a need and the volume to justify a ferry of this design,” Simms said.

The double-ended ferry is 20-by-60 feet, has two motors, hydraulic gates in the front and back, and can travel at about 12 knots (15 miles) an hour.

A marine surveyor hired by Coast RTA “spent two days conducting an exhaustive, comprehensive inspection of the entire vessel,” Rollins said, and found it in “generally good condition.”

Coast RTA is still looking into the best way to transport the ferry to Georgetown County if it gets the craft. Rollins said he isn’t sure how much that might cost.

Georgetown County School District has also been looking at a ferry service as a way to replace its aging school boat. Superintendent Randy Dozier said he doesn’t think a car ferry is the best option for transporting students. The district currently uses a state-owned passenger ferry.

But the idea merits consideration, he said.

“It would depend on how many students were being transported,” he said.

The school boat usually carries about 10, but has carried 20. He said students could be taken to the boat landing in a Jeep the district has on the island.

The Rev. George Weathers, the “unofficial mayor” of Sandy Island, said he had not heard anything about plans to acquire the ferry as of Wednesday, but he is excited by the possibilities.

“I think this will make the residents of Sandy Island happy when they hear about it,” he said.

Sandy Island residents have been asking officials for a car ferry for decades. Their efforts were given more urgency in February 2009, when three island residents drowned after their boat sank en route to the island. The island is only accessible by boat and most families use small, personal boat to travel to the mainland.

While some work will still be required to determine when and how often ferry trips would be scheduled, as well as how families will decide which three cars travel on a single trip, getting a vessel would be a major step, Weathers said.

“I hope the county will jump on it and make some effort to make this a reality.”

Weathers is also a member of the task force formed to make a decision about ferry service. The group last met in November.

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