Surplus ferry transfer cleared; Sandy Island hopes for boat

The federal government has decided that a three-vehicle ferry being eyed by The Coast Regional Transportation Authority is legally transferrable.

The Coast RTA is pursuing the unused Hokes Bluff Ferry as a potential solution to a decades-long transportation problem Sandy Island residents face.

Sandy Island is the only residential community in South Carolina with no bridge, ferry or road access. Residents have asked for reliable transportation since the 1970s.

The Hokes Bluff Ferry was built for Etowah County, Ala., in 2007, and after that county discovered it could not fund $200,000 a year in operational cost, officials there declared it surplus in March 2009.

The decision about the ferry's future reverted back to the Federal Highway Administration, which provided the grant funds to build the boat.

The FHWA has done its legal research and recently determined that the boat is legally transferrable to another entity, said spokeswoman Nancy Singer, with the Federal Highway Administration.

"Now, we are reviewing how we are going to proceed," Singer said.

Singer was unable Tuesday to give detailed information on how the selection process would work and a timeline for selecting an entity to get the ferry.

"We are still looking at how that will be done," Singer said.

Coast RTA General Manager Myers Rollins said he received the news about the FHWA's decision that the ferry was transferrable late Monday.

He said he has been in touch with the FHWA and expects they will consider whether an entity has the funding to physically transfer the ferry, if there is a reliable source of operational costs and the operations plan.

It would cost about $20,000 to move the boat by sea and about $30,000 to move it by land, Rollins said.

"I think it's good news and it's challenging news," Rollins said. " I think it's good news, because we have a compelling story to tell."

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 transportation solution after three people drowned during a storm Feb. 18, 2009, while on their way home to Sandy Island.

"I think it's challenging news because I think it's put up or shut up time for the community," Rollins said. "I am going to have to identify a funding source to transfer the ferry. I have a responsibility to use the dollars that I am given most efficiently. I can't use the dollars to transport a ferry."

Rollins said he plans to recommend to the Coast RTA board at their meeting today to give him 30 days to secure the funding for the transfer.

Even if the ferry is received, money would still have to be found to operate it. A state grant is in the works, but would require local matching funds, and no government has come forward with a promise of sustained funding.

Note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the ferry's title. Etowah County, Alabama still has the title for the ferry, said Engineer Tim Graves, with the county.