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Sandy Island: Ferry may be free, but not operations

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Coast RTA doesn’t know yet how much it would cost to operate a ferry service to Sandy Island.

That hinges on how many days a week the ferry would run and how many trips a day it would make, among other factors that are still to be determined, said Myers Rollins Jr., the regional transportation authority’s general manager.

But even with a $100,480 state grant that can be used for operations and the possibility of acquiring a vessel at no cost, it could be a very expensive endeavor.

A car ferry that provided on-demand service to South Island was virtually taken out of use last summer due to the cost of operations, said Jamie Dozier, project manager for Yawkey Wildlife Center, which is located on South Island.

“It may run twice a month now if we’re lucky,” Dozier said. “It’s only used to carry large deliveries,” such as lumber or above-ground fuel tanks.

The ferry used to operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, averaging about 13 trips a day, mostly to transport employees who work at the center.

The state Department of Transportation spent about $450,000 a year to provide the service, including the cost of fuel, salaries and annual maintenance.

When the state Department of Natural Resources took over operation of the ferry in July, the transfer didn’t come with a budget increase, so Dozier said there was no choice but to cut service.

Employees now use a pontoon boat to go back and forth. Dozier estimates operation costs about $1,000 a year. There haven’t been any maintenance or repair costs, and the ferry is captained by staff at the center.

The three-car ferry RTA is trying to acquire from Etowah County, Ala., is available because it was too costly to operate, said Patrick Simms, the county’s CEO.

The county had the boat custom built with a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. It was intended to run a quarter-mile river route, but after being delivered four years behind schedule, it was never put into service.

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

After trying unsuccessfully to sell the boat, county officials agreed to let the highway administration award it to someone else.

Simms said several communities have expressed interest in acquiring the boat. The highway administration will make that decision, but it is uncertain when.

If RTA gets the vessel, just transporting it is estimated to cost at least $25,000.

Tom Swatzel, owner of Ocean Fleet Inc., a passenger vessel operation and management business, estimates the agency will need $230,000 to $270,000 a year to operate the boat.

The annual cost of insurance alone would be about $20,000 to $25,000, he predicted.

“While effectively the capital cost would disappear, the extra maintenance costs associated with a steel vehicle ferry would probably offset” the savings, Swatzel said.

Though RTA has a grant to help pay for operations, it can’t use the money until it can provide matching funds, which it hasn’t been able to locate.

Swatzel’s figures are based on an operation schedule RTA used in a request-for-proposals it issued in September. It wanted to contract a passenger boat that could carry at least 35 people and proposed a minimum of four trips a day, seven days a week.

RTA received one bid. Kingfish Inc. of Murrells Inlet offered to provide the service for $263,000.

Rollins later suggested lighter schedules, including one that only provided weekend service. A lighter schedule would allow service to be provided at a lower cost.

Dr. Eric Heiden, a longtime boat captain, said he isn’t sure what it might cost to operate a ferry to Sandy Island, but he has no doubt it will be “real expensive,” and he has “mixed emotions about footing the bill.”

There has been debate about whether taxpayers should fund transportation to a residential island. Sandy Island is home to about 100 people. Residents use small personal boats to travel between the island and the mainland, and have been asking for a car ferry for decades.

New urgency was given to their pleas in February 2008, when three residents drowned en route to the island after their boat sank.

Even without the cost issues, the ferry may not provide the fix island residents are hoping for.

“It has extremely low horsepower for a vessel of that size,” Swatzel said.

The 20-by-60-foot double-ended ferry has two 85-horsepower diesel engines, but only one would be operational at a time.

“For a vessel that weighs about 44 tons, it seems to be underpowered,” Swatzel said. “Most family runabouts have more power than that.”

With the added weight of vehicles and passengers, “the vessel seems grossly underpowered, especially if it will be operated in moderate to strong currents,” he said.

Swatzel said he also has concerns about whether the vessel meets the strict Coast Guard regulations required for a certificate of inspection, which is needed for a ferry to legally carry passengers.

“It would be a good idea for the RTA to contact the USCG Marine Safety Office in Myrtle Beach to discuss [the ferry] with the inspectors” before accepting the vessel, Swatzel said. “They could review the existing USCG file on the vessel and give guidance as to whether it’s likely the ferry can be certified to operate on the Sandy Island route as is, or will it take extensive structural and/or equipment modifications.”

Rick Nieves, who is in charge of the office, said he has not been contacted about the ferry. He only knows about the vessel from news reports, he said.

If the ferry only makes a few trips a day, that could also present a challenge in determining which cars use the ferry. Though designed to carry three cars, Rollins said it might be determined, after the boat is inspected by the Coast Guard that it can only carry two cars or one large SUV.

The Rev. George Weathers, the island’s “unofficial mayor,” said being able to transport a limited number of vehicles could create some difficulties, but is something to be worked out later. He wants to focus now on getting a boat.

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