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Transit agency rejects car ferry for Sandy Island

By Jackie Broach
Coastal Observer

Coast RTA will not take possession of a car ferry given to the state Department of Transportation several months ago for use at Sandy Island, according to officials with the regional transportation authority.

Building the infrastructure needed for the ferry to operate between the mainland and the island would be cost prohibitive, said Glen O’Connell, a Coast RTA board member.

The matter, along with alternative solutions to the island’s transportation issues, will be the subject of a meeting today in Georgetown.

Myers Rollins, director of Coast RTA, was reluctant to say the offer of the ferry would be declined, but O’Connell said that was the gist of what board members were told at a meeting last month.

“There are challenges in moving forward with the ‘free’ vessel and there has to be a collective decision on how to move forward,” Rollins said. “We have been spending a lot of resources, energy and time to identify a transportation plan that improves the quality of life on Sandy Island, but at the end of the day we have to have adequate funding support.”

Coast RTA received a grant to help operate a ferry service more than a year ago, but has yet to secure matching funds and, with the current economic climate, Rollins is resigned to the fact that the funds might never materialize.

“We can’t continue to sit and wait for funding,” he said. “We’re still committed to the project. We just need to look at less cost prohibitive options.”

Today’s meeting of the committee formed two years ago to investigate the feasibility of operating a ferry at Sandy Island will include a brainstorming session to identify what those options might be, he said.

News that the ferry won’t be used at Sandy Island after all didn’t come as a surprise to Charles Pyatt, an island resident.

“That’s what I was looking for all along,” he said. “That’s the way it always goes. Every time something happens we get a lot of publicity, but they’re not going to do nothing.”

This latest effort to start a ferry service at the island was sparked when three people drowned on their way home to the island in 2009. They were traveling on a stormy night in a small, personal vessel when it capsized about 30 yards from the island’s dock.

The island can only be reached by boat and residents have been looking for a safer way to travel for more than a decade.

The tragedy two years ago lent new urgency to their pleas, but some county residents are adamantly opposed to using public funds to provide transportation to and from the island.

Pyatt said he believes promises from officials to continue looking for a solution to the island’s transportation issues are “just talk.”

“I don’t think they’re committed,” he said. “They might want to do something, but there are too many people against us.”

O’Connell said he never saw the car ferry as a viable solution for the island’s problems. Officials were warned all along about the high costs that would come with operating the vessel.

The ferry, appraised at $247,500, was commissioned about 10 years ago by Etowah County, Ala., with grant funding from the Federal Highway Administration. It took longer than anticipated for the ferry to be completed and, when it was finally delivered, Etowah County officials decided they couldn’t afford the $225,000 a year to operate it.

The ferry was never put into service.

The county returned the ferry to the administration after it was unable to sell it and the agency agreed to give it to South Carolina.

The state was given 90 days to decide whether it would accept the vessel, said O’Connell.

“My understanding is we’re within that window, so there should be no problem at all” with refusing the boat.

Today’s committee meeting begins at 10:30 a.m. in County Council chambers.

Discussion at the meeting will be relayed to the Coast RTA board at its next meeting March 30 in Conway.

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