Sandy Island has eyes on ferry

Whether Sandy Island will get a much-needed vehicle ferry could be up to the Federal Highway Administration.

The Coast Regional Transportation Authority is trying to acquire a 60-foot, three-vehicle Hokes Bluff Ferry, which originally was constructed in 2007 for Etowah County, Ala.

The ferry will have to pass through some legal hurdles before it can be considered for use to and from Sandy Island, according to Nancy Singer, with the Federal Highway Administration.

The Hokes Bluff Ferry, which was built for about $380,000, was paid for primarily through a Federal Highway Administration legislative earmark, she said.

Lawmakers may need to go back and clear the boat for use by another entity.

Etowah County, after realizing it could not afford to operate the ferry, decided to declare it surplus property in March 2009 and its title reverted to the FHWA.

"We are looking at ways to resolve the issue," Singer said. "The main issue is to see if the boat can legally be transferred."

Sandy Island is the only residential community in South Carolina without bridge, ferry or road access. Residents have been asking for reliable transportation since the 1970s.

Currently, the island's 100 residents use private boats to travel nearly a mile to the mainland for such things as groceries, work and doctor's appointments.

Interest was renewed in finding a safer solution after three people drowned during a storm Feb. 18, 2009, while on their way home to Sandy Island.

Georgetown County formed an ad hoc committee to find a long-term and short-term fix. So far, funding has proven the biggest hurdle.

Coast RTA General Manager Myers Rollins is cautious about getting residents' hopes up as to whether the Hokes Bluff Ferry will be the long awaited solution.

"It really is premature to talk about it right now," Rollins said. "I'm hesitant to talk about it in case it does not work out.

"We are competing with a government in Maine for the boat."

He said it could be a few more weeks until he hears a decision from the highway administration.

Even if Coast RTA does get the ferry, the agency still will have to find a way to move the boat, which could cost about $25,000 to transport by land, Rollins said.

He said he is researching a cheaper route of bringing the boat by water, but has no estimate yet.

In addition, The Coast RTA would still need to find funding to operate the boat.

Rollins said he did not know how much it would cost to run the ferry annually.

It would depend on how many trips the boat made a day, he said.

The S.C. Department of Transportation has approved a $148,000 Job Access Reverse Commute grant application. The award is under review by the Federal Transit Administration.

But even if the grant is approved, a sustainable source of matching funds has to be found, Rollins said.

The grant would require 50 percent matching funds if the money were to be used toward capital expenses and 20 percent matching if used for operational expenses.

The Coast RTA has also applied for a $426,355 federal grant application that could help pay for infrastructure improvements such as dredging, but it could be several months before the agency hears back on that grant.

So far, Georgetown County has not said it will provide any funding for the project.

Funding is the reason Etowah County gave up the ferry.

Etowah County used about $300,000 in Federal Highway Administration grant money to build the Hokes Bluff Ferry. However, after the boat was finished, county officials determined they didn't have the $300,000 a year it would have cost to operate the ferry daily, said Patrick Simms, chief executive officer of Etowah County.

The council decided to declare the ferry surplus and put it up for bid in March 2009, with no successful bidders.

"We did not have offers that come close to the cost of construction of the vehicle," Simms said.

The boat is currently docked in Etowah County unused and uninsured.

If a flood were to rise up and carry the ferry away, it would be lost, Simms said.

"We do not have a dog in this fight," Simms said.

"Technically, we do not own it. We don't have papers to it.

"Our only interest is that it goes to somebody who needs it. It's in [the Federal Highway Administration's] hands. We are waiting for someone to show up with a big truck and tow it away."

Sandy Island has had a series of potential fixes to their transportation woes fall apart due to funding over the years.

In May 2009 lawmakers approved a bill to expand the use of the state-owned school boat to all Sandy Island residents so it could be used for non-school purposes.

It was not put into service because Georgetown County and Coast RTA could not identify funding to operate additional trips and did not find a second certified boat operator.

In the 1970s, Sandy Island residents were promised a ferry service by the S.C. Department of Highways and Public Transportation. A ferry was purchased, but it was later sold after a state feasibility study showed it would cost $4.5 million to operate ferries on a 24-hour basis.

Rollins is not giving up.

"Every day we are looking for ways to fund the project," he said.

"The key here is identifying the local support. I am ardently seeking revenue."