By Connie Leinbach
A survey on the feasibility of passenger ferries between Hatteras and Ocracoke will begin in March and follow with public meetings in April, NC DOT ferry officials said Monday.
In their monthly open meetings on Ocracoke, Jed Dixon and Harold Thomas, both assistant Ferry Division directors, answered questions about the possibility of passenger ferries and more with about 13 residents in the Ocracoke Community Center.
Dixon said the survey process by an engineering firm hired by NCDOT will include a local stakeholders committee. Hyde County Manager Bill Rich, who is on the study steering committee, will select the members.
Ocracoke will be the site of a trial run of a passenger ferry the first week in May when a passenger ferry en route from the Caribbean to Boston will stop off at Hatteras from May 2 to May 4 or 5 for Ferry Division personnel to investigate how they work, their design and fuel consumption.
“No passengers will be allowed on it,” Dixon said about the trial runs they will conduct. “It’s just information gathering.”
Fred Westervelt suggested that the Ferry Division look at all facets of transportation between the islands, such as hover craft.
“(Hover craft) could eliminate the need for dredging and extra boats,” Westervelt said. “Don’t lay aside any idea in this evaluation phase.”
As for getting internet access on the ferries and the improvements being made continuously, Dixon and Thomas said the division can look into it again.
Thomas noted that all of these things can help shape eastern North Carolina and put this area on the cutting edge of moving people.
“We know we have a connectivity issue between Hatteras and Ocracoke,” Thomas said.
About Hatteras Inlet, Dixon said the division is working with the Army Corps of Engineers, who have jurisdiction over the part of the channel that’s the most shoaled.
The most recent dredging, completed around Feb. 5 did not succeed in making a channel where it’s safe to run ferries.
In the 4-mile short route there’s a one-mile stretch that’s three to five feet deep—not deep enough for boats.
“We are not going to use the short route this summer,” Dixon said about the short route. “Where the old route was, it’s gone.”
One of the roadblocks to better dredging the short route is that it can only be dredged to 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep, which is what has historically been done in that channel.
“At 100 feet wide, it’s not going to stay open (from shoaling),” Dixon said. “What has to be done is to change the (regulation) depth and width.”
But it would take a federal act to raise those dimensions to 300 feet wide.
Nevertheless, the ferry division has hired a company to study this, Dixon said. An environmental study has to be done first.
The division also is doing a study to look at shaving 15 minutes off the long route, which is a natural channel farther west in the Pamlico Sound. This channel is called the Barney Slough and has been the official route between islands since last summer.
That route is costing the Ferry Division about $8,000 a day more in the peak season and $3,000 to $4,000 a day more in the off season, Thomas said.
As for the possibility of scheduling the Cedar Island ferry to run a half hour later to accommodate residents going off island for appointments and being able to get back the same day, Dixon said the difficulty is in scheduling crew who can only work 12 hours each shift.
These meetings are typically at 1 p.m. the second Monday of each month in the Ocracoke Community Center.