By Peter Vankevich and Connie Leinbach
A public meeting Monday in the Ocracoke Community Center seeking feedback on the feasibility of a passenger ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke Village drew the curious to see what the possible new service could be like.
Billed as an open forum, representatives from the North Carolina Ferry Division and the consulting firm Volkert, who is conducting the study, shared their findings on the many issues involved in adding a passenger ferry not the least of which is uncertain funding in the face of the vagaries of the state Legislature. The Ferry Division is also exploring grants independent of state funding.
About 50 locals attended over the two hours of the forum.
Ed Goodwin, Ferry Division director, who attended, said that if a passenger ferry is decided,the earliest implementation of it would be 2017.
Hyde County Transit Director Beverly Paul also attended and provided updates on getting a tram service to shuttle the car-less visitors around the village and to the lifeguard beach.
While ferry officials have said at meetings here during the summer that the study on this possible service would be done by Labor Day, the study is only at the half-way stage and should be available by the end of the year.
Many islanders have approached the idea of a passenger ferry with curiosity and some caution.
“I’m ready to ride,” said Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, about the idea. “I don’t know if it will work 100 percent, but let’s see it.”
“I want to ride it,” said islander Mike Johnson.
Ernie Westervelt, co-owner of The Cove B&B, said the entire concept needs a lot more thought.
“What if the weather turns bad and they (the passengers) can’t get off the island?” she asked. “There aren’t enough rooms for all of those people.”
One proposed passenger ferry would hold 150 passengers. Another option is using two smaller ferries.
“What if it breaks down?” asked Amy Johnson, owner of the Pirate’s Chest. “Then what?”
Fred Westervelt, co-owner of The Cove with Ernie, said all of those additional visitors “would change the ambiance of the island.”
Below are some visual displays that show what the study is considering and on which it is seeking feedback:
A number of islanders, including Ocracoke Civic and Business Association President Rudy Austin, who also is a retired ferry boat captain, have been vocal in not giving up on reopening the short route that the ferry stopped using at the end of 2013 due to excessive shoaling.
“If we can get the short route restored, this would not be necessary,” said Austin about the passenger ferry idea.
A route taking about 40 minutes and going across the Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke has been used since the mid-20th century. Following Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, heavy sand buildup (shoaling) in the inlet, made the crossing impossible for ferries to do so without running aground.
The longer route, currently being used and made official by the Coast Guard in 2014, follows a natural channel that goes into the Pamlico Sound, then to Ocracoke in about an hour’s time. Due to the longer travel time, fewer boats can cross in any one day.
“The longer route has 10 fewer trips per day,” Austin has said. That means at least 300 fewer cars with passengers per day traveling to Ocracoke.
At this stage of the study, the slide above shows the high costs to get back to the number of passengers when the short route was working in 2012 before it was shut down.
This display shows the beginnings of some high costs of the project, especially for terminal improvements at the Hatteras ferry and in the village. The passenger ferry types being considered, such as the Provincetown III that stopped briefly here in May, showed these ferries can offer a fun trip.
A passenger ferry going all the way to Ocracoke village would take about the same amount of time as the car ferry takes to get to the South Dock (which is the north end ferry terminal and is south of the Hatteras dock). It then would require a bus service to shuttle folks the roughly 13 miles to the village.
Under consideration are two smaller passenger ferries, rather than a single large one, such as the Provincetown III. The report at this stage suggests that 25 percent of the visitors to Ocracoke would choose a passenger ferry. Fewer cars coming over would decrease the wait time for vehicles to board the car ferries.
This drawing shows a new passenger ferry center (at right) would be built on Silver Lake harbor and would include two sets of restrooms, ticket sales and an inside waiting area.
Here is a proposed schedule for peak tourist season and a tentative $15 round-trip fee for using a passenger ferry. How long of a season and what would the ferries do off-season are open questions. Goodwin said they are looking into using them on other routes in the state.
Bill Barlow, who, along with Beverly Paul with the nonprofit, Hyde County Transit, displays a map of the village with official stops in orange dots. These stops are just preliminary suggestions.