Ferry Q and A

Sundae Horn
This is a very bad photo of Jed's very informative slide showing the changes in Hatteras Island's coastline. Use your imagination.
This is a very bad photo of Jed's very informative slide showing the changes in Hatteras Island's coastline. Use your imagination.

Your questions (sort of) answered about passenger ferries and more!

In a public meeting on Monday, Ocracoke residents heard from NCDOT ferry division management including director Ed Goodwin, and Harold Thomas, Jed Dixon, Chris Bock, and Tim Hass. Most of the 2-hour discussion revolved around why we are stuck with the “long” route, and what we can do about getting visitors to Ocracoke. The future possibility of passenger-only ferries on the Ocracoke-Hatteras route was a hot topic, but one with more questions than answers.

The ferry division is contracting out for a feasibility study to be done about passenger ferries. They expect that study to take about a year, at which time they’ll be able to answer such questions as: What will the boats look like? Will there be a fee? Would a public-private partnership work best? Will they land in the village or at the north end of Ocracoke? Where will people park? Will people use them? What will be the impact on the economy and culture of Ocracoke?

All will be revealed in the fullness of time. The gears of state government move slowly, but now is when we need to get them going.

“We have a congestion problem at the Hatteras ferry,” said Ed Goodwin. “This summer, we had more boats running the Hatteras route than ever, and we had the schedule packed tight, and we’re still down 35%. People turn around and leave because the average wait time to get on a ferry to Ocracoke was two hours.”

Hyde County manager Bill Rich praised the ferry division’s willingness to consider passenger ferries.

“If the long route is our permanent route, we can’t get enough people to Ocracoke,” he said. “This would be a great opportunity to have the DOT promoting passenger ferries with us, but it needs community support.” 

“Ocracoke needs to be involved in the process,” Goodwin said. “We’re not ramming it down your throat.”

But he made a compelling case for the need for passenger ferries.

“We can’t build a bridge, and we can’t add more ferries to the Hatteras route because it would cause a traffic jam [in the ferry channel] and we don’t have enough boats,” he said. “We haven’t abandoned the short route, but it’s not navigable.” 

Goodwin dashed hopes that the short route would reopen anytime soon. Blame money and the Almighty. 

“We have $800,000 in the budget for dredging,” he said. “Eight million was spent to dredge last December, and it lasted three months. The channel fills in. I didn’t close the short route – God did it for me. Where do I get the money to dredge again?” 

The long route has its challenges, but it is stable. You can find it on charts dating back to the 1700’s. The short route is rapidly changing. True story: in 1998, there was only 1/3 of a mile of water between Hatteras and Ocracoke; now there’s a mile and a half. The pointy end of Hatteras is shrinking and as it shrinks, more sand and water can get through, making the channel fill in faster.

One problem with the long route is that more ferry trips have to be cancelled because of high winds. 

“The ferries go through more exposed areas and sometimes sea conditions won’t allow us to run,” explained Jed Dixon. “We have to cancel trips because passenger safety comes first.”

Running the long route all summer has also cost the ferry division an extra $8000 a day for fuel and personnel costs. And there’s the issue of salt spray on vehicles. 

Ocracoke’s county commissioner, John Fletcher, had a succinct solution to that: “If you don’t want to get wet, don’t go on the water.”

Goodwin said the ferry division had considered adding steel plates to the bows of the boats to mitigate the sea spray, but it’s cost and time prohibitive. “That’s 6 or 7 boats that need to be taken out of service, taken to the shipyard, hauled out and inspected by the Coast Guard…. There’s no quick fix,” he said. 

And did we mention that $4 million was cut from the ferry division’s budget?

Due to all of the above, the ferry division is eager to learn more about passenger ferries and they want Ocracoke residents to imagine the possibilities. A strategic planning group of Ocracoke stakeholders will be put together to work with the ferry division.

Ocracoke resident Tommy Hutcherson spoke up about getting visitors to the beach.

“Our lifeline comes from Hatteras… vendors, visitors, locals, the majority come that way,” he said. “Ocracoke village is great, but we have the best beach. That’s what we’ve got, the nicest beach. If passenger ferries come to the village, how do we get people out to the beach?”

“That’s not our problem to solve,” answered Goodwin. “We’ll get people here, it’s your responsibility what happens after that.”

Beverly Paul from Hyde County Transit is getting equipment in place for 2017 (she has to plan that far ahead… slow gears again). Trams, trolleys, beach drop-off, bussing people from the north end of Ocracoke to the village…. “We can make it look any way you want it to,” she said.

“We’re looking at all the options,” said Harold Thomas. “If this is promoted correctly, it could work. We need Ocracoke’s input in shaping it and promoting it.”

Goodwin reminded Ocracoke residents that 13 out of 22 boats in the NC ferry system run to and from Ocracoke. The ferry division is committed to us.

“We’re in this together,” said Bill Rich. “We couldn’t have better friends than the ferry division.”

Here are some additional facts, figures, and ideas they threw out, some of which will be explored by the feasibility study:

The average wait time at Hatteras to get on a ferry to Ocracoke was two hours this summer. Hyde County Transit’s survey showed that the majority of daytrip passengers were willing to wait one hour. Ferry personnel could watch the webcams and see cars turn around and leave.

Hyde Transit’s survey also showed that only 20% of daytrippers planned to go to the beach. Mostly, they want to sightsee, shop, and eat.

It takes on average 6 hours round trip just to get to Ocracoke and back on the long route. The NC Department of Commerce estimates that if visitors had 2 -3 more hours on the island, they would spend $50 more per person.

A passenger ferry that can carry 149 people would cost about $5 million. New car ferries cost $18 million. It might be possible to lease the passenger ferries first to make sure the system works before buying them outright. 

A proposed passenger ferry route would run 24.5 miles dock to dock and land in Silver Lake harbor on Ocracoke. (There is plenty of dock space at existing docks for more boats.) Crossing time would be 80 – 100 minutes. If you knew which ferry you’d be on and could plan for it, the total travel time would decrease by half to get to Ocracoke and back.

The state owns parking for 200-225 cars at Hatteras, and could possibly lease more land. Or maybe even bus people from the northern villages. 

The ferry personnel are looking at places where passenger ferries run in similar sea conditions. The ferry from Provincetown to Boston is of particular interest.

Retired ferry captain Rudy Austin did his own research and found smaller passenger ferries that could run from Hatteras to Ocracoke’s north end in 18 minutes. Goodwin said the ferry division had seen those as well.

North Carolina does not get its fair share of Federal funding for ferries. We have the 2nd largest state ferry system. Washington has the biggest and gets $18 million in Federal funds. Alaska (3rd place) gets $15 million. North Carolina gets $1.5 million. Yes, you did see a decimal point.



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