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Sandy Island: Council changes stance on ferry funds

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council members reversed a vote taken in April and agreed to provide a letter of support for efforts to secure federal funding for a Sandy Island ferry.

The Waccamaw Regional Transportation Authority and Coast RTA returned to County Council this week with the request for the letter of support, a requirement for submitting a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant application.

The council voted 4-3 against the letter of support in April and 5-2 in favor on Tuesday. Council Members Ron Charlton and Austin Beard changed their votes.

Charlton said he was supporting the letter while clarifying that it would not obligate the county financially. “If we had to do financial aid,” Charlton said on Wednesday, “I would have voted against it.”

Charlton said he would like to see some information on combining the school bus ferry with a passenger ferry that charges riders a fee. “The school vessel is outdated and needs to be replaced,” he said. “In my opinion there should be just one vessel for the school and the residents.”

The proposal said any grant funding will be applied toward the capital equipment purchase of a passenger ferry boat owned and operated by Coast RTA. The letter of support does not obligate Georgetown County financially, the proposal said.

Beard said he had spoken with board members of Coast RTA and Georgetown County school officials before changing his mind about the letter of support.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the outcome of their efforts with USDA are before we have any idea about the future of ferry service to Sandy Island,” Beard said. “We all want to do something for the island’s residents and protect the county from any burdensome financial obligation.”

Council Members Bob Anderson and Jerry Oakley remained opposed and voted against supporting a request for ferry funds.

“This will be the fourth time this subject has come up,” Anderson said. “Some of us were getting feedback that there might be some county funds involved.”

Cost estimates included $200,000 for a 32-foot handicapped-accessible pontoon boat and $150,000 in annual operating costs. S.C. Department of Transportation has approved a $75,000 grant to cover part of the maintenance and operating costs for 2014.

Coast RTA board members were hoping to bring all interested parties together, including the Georgetown County School District, which operates a school boat for children on the island. Gary Loftus, an Horry County Council member who serves on the Coast RTA board, said it makes no sense to run two boats.

Anderson said he had talked with residents of Sandy Island and discussed the pros and cons of a ferry and a bridge across the Pee Dee River near Plantersville. He said he was excited about the idea of a bridge because it would open the island to everyone. A ferry, he said, would only benefit the 68 residents. After their original discussions, Anderson said residents didn’t get back with him.

“With this RTA thing,” Anderson said, “it’s going to take state, federal or local taxes. This money is not tythed. It’s taken from the citizens of this country in tax dollars. This is a different color of money we’re dealing with here. As with all federal dollars, 40 cents of every dollar is borrowed money. This will be paid back by our grandchildren. I’m worried this is another example of what’s going on in this country. I’d still love to have the opportunity to go forward and take a look at a bridge.”

Another financial problem with a ferry will be dredging the channel near the dock at the mainland. Anderson said agreements were to keep the channel at a depth of 3.5 feet at mean low tide. He thinks the channel has silted in since it was last dredged and no longer meets that depth standard. Additional costs would include liability insurance for the county.

Myers Rollins Jr., executive director of Coast RTA, called the council’s vote “extremely exciting and encouraging news.”

Without Georgetown County Council’s approval, the Coast RTA board tabled the ferry proposal in April.

Rollins said the letter of support will allow his organization to move forward with a strategy to provide regular, reliable, safe ferry service for Sandy Island. “We will continue to work with local stakeholders to identify sources of funds to match the federal funds,” Rollins said.

He said Coast RTA originally looked at federal Job Access and Reverse Commute funds for operations. “We will go back to the state and reconfirm the amounts we’ll be eligible for,” he said.

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