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Agencies add up costs to put free ferry in service

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Advocates for ferry service to provide safer transportation for Sandy Island residents celebrated a small victory this week.

The state has been given a three-car ferry to provide the service, the S.C. Department of Transportation announced Monday.

But funding to operate the service is still being sought.

Appraised at $247,500, the vessel was awarded to the state by the Federal Highway Administration after Etowah County, Ala., which commissioned the ferry about 10 years ago with funds from the administration.

The county decided it couldn’t afford the $225,000 a year to operate the craft on the quarter-mile river route it was intended to run, and it was never put into service.

“The good news is we have secured a special grant and we have some flexibility with that,” said Myers Rollins Jr., general manager of Coast RTA.

The regional transportation authority was put in charge of looking into options for providing ferry service last year. It obtained a $148,000 federal grant in November 2009 for the service’s first year of operation, but the grant requires a dollar for dollar match.

Though Rollins has spent the last year looking for funds, he hasn’t had any luck yet. It’s something he’ll continue to work on while he waits to take possession of the 20-by-60-foot double-ended ferry in the spring. Plans are to bring the ferry over by water and that’s the soonest weather conditions will be hospitable for the job, Rollins said.

The cost to transport the boat is estimated at about $25,000.

Rollins wants to sit down in the near future with officials from Georgetown County and the Georgetown County School District – the other principals in the investigation – to look at what kind of contributions they might be able to make toward operations, as well as when and how often the ferry might run.

Plans are also in the works for Coast RTA to meet with Sandy Island residents to talk about the acquisition and how they would be best served by a ferry.

“We want to be sure we provide a service that enhances the quality of their life,” Rollins said.

Georgetown County Council started the investigation into a ferry service nearly two years ago, after three Sandy Island residents drowned while traveling home at around 9 p.m. in an open 14-foot fiberglass boat in February 2009. There was a storm that night and the boat started taking on water.

The island is only accessible by boat and is home to about 100 people.

The school district uses a state-owned passenger ferry to transport children on the island to the mainland for school. It has been looking at retiring the aging school boat and using the ferry service operated by Coast RTA instead.

School Superintendent Randy Dozier questioned whether a car ferry would be the best option for transporting students back in April when Coast RTA first started looking at acquiring the ferry, but he couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Neither the school district nor the county has made any commitments to funding.

“I think council will certainly consider it, but as to the outcome, I don’t know,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said.

For the past two years, the county has been struggling with budget shortfalls as a result of declining revenues brought on by the recession.

Bob Anderson, who will join council in January, said he doesn’t yet know enough about the county’s financial situation or the ferry issue to say whether he will support funding the service or to what extent.

“I’ll have to look at if the funding’s there and if it’s a priority,” he said.

Outgoing Council Member Glen O’Connell predicted council would provide some funding, but not nearly enough, even with the grant, to fund operations for a year. The estimates he has seen for annual operations have been in the range of $240,000 to $250,000, he said.

Based on previous discussions, he said he expects council’s contribution would be in the range of $20,000 to $25,000.

If enough money can’t be found to match the grant in full, Coast RTA will do its best to work with whatever is available.

“We’ll have the service we can afford,” Rollins said.

Regardless of the hurdles still to be overcome, Roz Geathers was joyful at the news that a safer means of travel to the island might soon be available.

Geathers is the paternal grandmother of Zyair Smalls, one of three survivors of the 2009 boat accident that killed his mother, Shaquatia Robinson, 19, his maternal grandmother, Lou Ann Robinson, 47, and his cousin, Rishard Pyatt, 18.

Smalls turns 3 in March.

“I’m thrilled, because Zyair will always go back and forth to visit his family” on Sandy Island, Geathers said. “He goes at least twice a month and I say my prayers every time. It’s fantastic if they can get a safer way to get people over there.”

Zyair spent 52 days at the Medical University of South Carolina after he was found floating in the water on the night of the accident. Doctors predicted he would never have a normal life, but Geathers said he continues to improve and is almost on the same level as other children his age.

“He’s walking and talking and having conversations,” Geathers said. “To see him today, you would never know he was that child they found in the water.”

Zyair has improved so much, he no longer has to have occupational therapy and his speech and physical therapy sessions have also been reduced.

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