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Sandy Island: Public ferry raises issue of private roadways

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Coast RTA has passed one hurdle in its efforts to acquire a ferry from a county in Alabama to provide transportation to Sandy Island, but the way is far from clear.

The federal government has determined it would be legal to transfer ownership of the three-car ferry, commissioned with a federal grant by Etowah County, Ala. But there’s a question now about whether the ferry could be used to make trips to Sandy Island, because its roads are private, said Myers Rollins, general manager of the regional transportation authority.

Rollins said he received an e-mail last week from someone in the area alerting him that might be an issue because rules that govern how Federal Highway Administration dollars are spent specify ferries built with those funds must operate on a route classified as a “public road.”

It could be interpreted that the Sandy Island route isn’t public, because the roads at one of the route aren’t public.

Nancy Singer, a spokeswoman for the highway administration, said she is unfamiliar with the island’s situation and couldn’t speak to whether the ownership of the roads would impact Coast RTA’s chances of getting the ferry.

“I would have to talk to my experts,” she said. “I don’t know that we’re at the point of determining where the ferry is going to go.”

Rollins said he is also unsure of what impact the roads might have. It’s something he’ll look into, he said, but he doesn’t think it’s the biggest barrier to obtaining the ferry, which several other entities are vying for.

“My understanding is that part of what they will evaluate [in determining who gets the ferry] is funds on hand to transport the vessel and operate it, and the purpose it will serve,” Rollins said. “We’re strong on purpose. Our purpose is valid. I’m comfortable with that, but if they did the evaluation right now, we run the risk of scoring very low in the other key categories.”

Transporting the ferry to Georgetown County is estimated to cost about $20,000 by sea and $30,000 by land. The cost to operate the ferry is still unknown.

Coast RTA has a $100,480 state grant that could be used for operation of a ferry, but it can’t use those funds until it can provide a match. The agency has been searching for a source to provide the match since receiving the grant in November, Rollins said, but hasn’t had any luck.

“We’ve got our feelers out, and we’re being ambitious with it,” he said.

There’s no word when the administration might begin the award process, but regardless of what happens with the Etowah County ferry, Rollins said Coast RTA will act carefully to guard against starting a ferry service it can’t maintain.

“That could be worse than having no service at all, because it heightens expectations,” Rollins said. “When it’s terminated, folks start looking for solutions that just don’t exist.”

Etowah County never put the ferry boat into service, because operation was deemed too expensive. It estimated operating the boat would have cost about $225,000 a year.

Sandy Island can only be reached by boat, and residents have been looking for a safer way to travel for more than a decade. Their pleas were given new urgency in February 2009, when three residents drowned while traveling to the island on a small personal boat. The vessel sank during a storm.

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