The Good, the Bad and the Ferry

Jenny Scarborough
Sidecast dredge boats are often a band aid before the pipeline dredges arrive.
Sidecast dredge boats are often a band aid before the pipeline dredges arrive.
Good news first: The Hatteras ferry route is stable, requiring only occasional dredging.

The bad news: it's not in the channel you hoped for.

The new, longer route is the route. NC Ferry Division Deputy Director Jed Dixon, Chris Bock, who heads Operations at Hatteras, and Navigations Chief Roger Bullock of the US Army Corps of Engineers gently let down a crowd of about 15 Ocracoke residents on Tuesday, April 11. Returning to the old, shorter route is magical thinking. 

This is not new news. Hydro-graphic surveys show that major events, including hurricanes, have changed the dynamic of the entire coastal area in the last decade, said Bullock, who has sought solutions for the region since writing his graduate thesis on Oregon Inlet in the 1980s. 

Before the current route became standard, guys who work the boats were seeing dramatic changes in the channel from week to week, said Dixon. 

It is time, said Dixon, for "a long term plan."

Dixon encouraged the people in the room, many of whom have been discussing the topic with some vigor for the past few years, to work together to ask questions about the next steps. He pointed to the existence of a Dare County task force that hired a coastal engineer and has successfully brought in state funds to dredge Oregon Inlet by matching 25%. 

Many present, including current Commissioner Tom Pahl, and former Commissioner and restaurant owner Darlene Styron, seemed ready to pose those questions. 

Hyde will have to seek partnerships with wealthier counties, and it is natural to work with Dare on a shared inlet, said Hyde County Manager Bill Rich. (Did you know that the political boundary between the two counties shifts with the gorge running through Hatteras channel? Now you do.)

The ideal route would be away from the churning inlet but not quite so far away as the ferry channel in use. Alas.
The ideal route would be away from the churning inlet but not quite so far away as the ferry channel in use. Alas.

The disappearance of the southern end of Hatteras Island over the past decade led to the disappearance of Rollison Channel, which paralleled the shore and intersected perpendicular to the Hatteras Channel gorge. For years the ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke navigated this inlet, which provided a wide stretch of deep water near land. Now it doesn't exist, and natural forces have not created a new channel following a similar route, nor does it seem likely to happen, said Bullock. His team assesses the old route every two months, and have seen conditions deteriorate over the last three years.

Today's horseshoe shaped ferry channel came about four years ago, when the Corps sought an alternate route while the Rollison channel was dredged. The goal was to "keep ferries out of the way of the dredging pipeline," said Bullock. His teams surveyed the sound for a route that they hoped would be temporary. Taking advantage of naturally occurring channels leads the route in shape of an inverted "S," with a fat loop on the approach to Ocracoke, and a smaller curl as you sidle away from Hatteras and all it has to offer. 

The Rollison continued to shoal as it was dredged. Or, as Bullock put it: "We did not achieve total project depth in that contract." 

Dredge crews attempting to keep the channel open were also dangerously exposed to open water in the inlet, said Bullock. Contractors, fearing for the safety of their workers, "were begging to get out of contracts," he said. Not willing to risk lives, the Corps decided to "wait until mother nature decides where the new channel is going to be." Bullock recognizes that the three year long wait has been "a hard pill to swallow."

Mother Nature has not responded. The dredge vessels available to the Corps are either too expensive ($3 million just to get an ocean dredge to show up), or unable to safely operate in the channel, explained Bullock. Throw in the COLREGS line and regulations for commercial vessels and it really does appear that it is not for lack of a will, but lack of a way, that the old channel has not been returned to us. The temporary is permanent, for now.

May all your crossings look like this.
May all your crossings look like this.

The current and future route follows natural sloughs, and meanders a bit. One way takes an hour, and the Division allots an hour and ten minutes per trip. Margins for loading and unloading are narrow, and don't account for inevitable delays caused by human ineptitude. Keys get locked in cars. Lights get left on and batteries die. 

Shaving 15 or 20 minutes off the route would allow the Ferry Division to send each operating vessel on an additional round trip – or even two – between the islands. Currently, it is a "strain to get five round trips out of each boat," said Dixon. "My whole goal is to cut time off the trip." 

The Division went to the spring schedule April 10, and is "already busy," said Dixon. The division will make all the possible modifications as needed to get people here, he said. 

Dixon took a moment to say that the Division is committed to both soon-to-arrive passenger ferries and car ferries. Think of them as "two parallel paths" to the island, and "not an either/or," he said. 

Dredging to cut off the horseshoe may be a near impossibility, said Dixon. In addition to finding funding, it would be a "major uphill push" that would require numerous permits from at least six state and federal agencies. He and Bullock allowed that they may not have identified all the agencies that would be involved. 

Seeking environmentally acceptable solutions takes money and inter-agency co-operation, and can be challenging, said Bullock. The timeline would be in years or decades rather than months. A lot can be learned from the Dare Waterways Commission, a group that has been active for twenty years, said both Dixon and Bullock. 

Over 90% of federal funding for Corps waterway navigation projects goes to 56 major ports, and the needs of Ocracoke residents will not change national priorities. A positive is that the waterway has long been on the books as a recognized and funded project, said Bullock. Before the major changes to the inlet, a $50,000 taxpayer investment maintained a navigable passage. In recent years, costs have been between $300,000 and $800,000 said Bullock. 

Perhaps the solution lies in the trillion dollar infrastructure bill being discussed, suggested coffee shop owner and drainer of puddles Justin LeBlanc, via text.

Potential deregulation of the environment may make some permits easier to get, suggested hotel owner George Chamberlin. 

All we know for sure, said native islander Scotty Robinson, is that by the time a decision is made, the shape of the waters will not look the same.

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