Free ferry for Sandy Island more like $400,000

Sometimes the word "free" actually means "expensive," officials learned this week.

Coast Regional Transportation Authority and Georgetown County officials thought they were getting a $600,000 vehicle ferry through the S.C. Department of Transportation in December for free.

But Coast officials say it would actually cost about $400,000 to get the ferry to the area and upgrade the docks to allow cars to go to and from the island.

"The bottom line is ... those dollars are not there," said Myers Rollins, general manager of Coast RTA, at a stakeholders meeting Thursday. "Our recommendation is that we not further pursue the car ferry."

Sandy Island is accessible only by boat and has no public transportation aside from a school ferry.

A public ferry for the island has been discussed for years, but those talks escalated after February 2009 when three people drowned when their boat capsized during a storm as they made their way back to the island one night.

The ferry promised to Georgetown County is in Etowah County, Ala., and getting it here would cost between $48,000 and $55,000 depending on how it's moved, said Coast RTA Planner Specialist George Osborne.

Osborne said the docks on the mainland and the island side of the Waccamaw River would have to be overhauled so vehicles could get safely on and off the ferry.

The permitting, engineering and construction would cost between $300,000 and $340,000 and would take at least a year, he said.

"We are prepared to move forward in our further investigation of a passenger ferry," Rollins told the Sandy Island Ad Hoc Committee, which includes Georgetown County officials and Sandy Island residents.

Cost estimates for a passenger-only ferry, even brand new, are much lower, Osborne said - between $74,000 and $112,000. Relocation and outfitting the piers would cost about $17,000, bringing the total to between $95,000 and $135,000. He said that type of ferry would carry about 25 passengers.

A passenger-only ferry is also more fuel efficient, he said, which would keep operating costs down.

But the Rev. George Weathers, a leader in the Sandy Island community, said this is not good news.

"I think people are going to be very, very disappointed," Weathers said.

He said this is going to "throw us back to the memory of 2009 when those children drowned."

Soon after the drownings, Weathers came before Georgetown County Council with the results of a vote from the residents of Sandy Island. The residents said then that they wanted a vehicle ferry.

Coast RTA's 2009 survey of island residents showed they prefer a car-and-passenger ferry.

More than half of the 61 people surveyed, 54 percent, said they would use a vehicle ferry daily if it was available. In that same survey, the top two criteria residents said were the most important in choosing a ferry were "safe boat" and "can transport a car."

Committee members said they want Rollins to talk to island residents and explain the situation, and set a tentative meeting date of April 9.

Rollins said after the meeting that he will go back and discuss the matter further with the Coast RTA board members. He said a decision will have to be made to accept or reject the ferry before the end of next week.

"We will do what is prudent," he said, "not necessarily what is popular."