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By Connie Leinbach
Acting Ferry Division Director Jed Dixon said Monday he thinks the advent of passenger ferry service in 2018 will be a shot in the arm to Ocracoke’s economy.
“There are no boats hidden out there; that’s all we have,” Dixon said during the monthly meeting Feb. 13 organized by Hyde County with Ferry Division officials. “This is something I really think is going to help you guys.”
Dixon was named interim director following the departure of Ed Goodwin Jan. 31.
“We want to restore your service to what it was in 2012,” Dixon said. “This is something that’s achievable. But there’s no magic solution to the problem we’re dealing with.”
Dixon was referring to the long ferry route (of about an hour) that has been running since 2013 between Hatteras and the north end of Ocracoke. This longer route was found after Hurricanes Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) caused more shoaling in the Hatteras Inlet largely filling in the short route (about 30 minutes) that historically had been used between islands.
The long route goes farther west into the Pamlico Sound in a natural channel, and because of the length, the Ferry Division makes fewer runs resulting in fewer vehicles per day to the island.
The passenger ferry feasibility study conducted by Volkert in June of 2015 and released last year concluded that because of the long wait times in peak season for a ferry at the Hatteras docks, about 9 percent of the vehicles waiting left the queue.
“This loss of ridership directly results in lost visitor spending on Ocracoke,” the study says, noting that since the short route was closed, island businesses have reported about a 20 percent downturn in revenue. That study can be viewed here.
As a result of islanders’ concerns, the Ferry Division proposed adding passenger ferry service from Hatteras to Silver Lake. Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $3.6 million towards this new option, and the Ferry Division received a Federal Land Access Program grant of about $6 million to fund the building of two such ferries as well as infrastructure on Hatteras and Ocracoke, including tram service. See more on the passenger ferry and a the request for tram service operations costs here.
“There’s no magic solution to the problem we’re dealing with,” Dixon continued. “I understand it’s a change, but if we’re running more boats over here it’s more than what we have now.”
He stressed that he wants Ocracoke’s buy-in.
“I’m not happy with the status quo, but we need your participation and support,” he said. “I’m all in favor of more boats to Ocracoke. You should get behind (the passenger ferry) and get excited about it.”
Dixon said the addition of the passenger ferry to the mix of access to the island is important for the island’s future.
“It’s gonna take a concerted effort,” he said about the passenger ferry. “What have we got to lose? It will help with the unmet demand. We can’t plan on our future to count on the short route.”
Dixon said the passenger ferry is in the final stages of design and because some initial costs estimates are about $1 million more than what they expected, they are refining the bids. They can’t seek bids until the Coast Guard approves the plans, and those plans will involve a catamaran-style of ferry, preferably powered by water jets.
He said four different boat-building firms are interested, one of which is Armstrong in Swansboro.
Dixon encouraged islanders with questions about the passenger ferry to talk to Hyde County Manager Bill Rich.
Dixon discussed the shoaling problem near the Ocracoke terminal, which is called the south dock. the Hatteras terminal is the north dock.
“We finished dredging at the south dock in December and it filled right in,” he said. “This is getting worse and worse and it’s not lasting like it used to. Water is flowing through that place like a river.”
Thus, the dredged area has filled back in.
“The mouth of the south dock is a problem,” he said.
He met with the Park Service about putting “rip-rap” where the spoil is—to help the dredging hold–and the Park Service is working on getting permits for this.
Rip-rap is an island term for busted up chunks of concrete used for building jetties.
Additionally, the areas of the channel along Hatteras island also continue to have shoaling problems. Years ago, Hatteras island extended farther south and that land protected the inlet making it smaller and deeper. In the last 16 years, the Hatteras Inlet has gotten wider making the navigable water shallower and more shoaled.
“You’re fighting mother nature,” he said. “We’re in full agreement in restoring the short route but we don’t know if it will work.”
He said the Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to look at the inlet and doing a study on creating some other, shorter route.
Dixon said he would share with Ocracoke the Corps’ findings.
In the meantime, there may be times when shoaling and fog prompt captains to cancel ferry runs. Twitter is the best means of learning that quickly, versus a notice on the electronic sign at the north end of the village, which takes an hour to be set up with notifications, he said
“Fog is a problem and can come and go quickly,” he said.
Some of the 16 islanders who attended the meeting were interested in the number of vehicle ferries available for service this year.
Dixon said there are seven in the fleet at Hatteras. Six of those make the daily runs with one spare, and they will be ready by the time the season starts, Dixon said.
“We have an efficient system with six scheduled,” said Chris Bock, Hatteras Inlet operations superintendent, who also attended the meeting. In the peak summer months, the ferries are scheduled to run every 15 to 20 minutes.
As for questions about ferry boats being in dry dock in the summer, Dixon said they try not to do that and that he will be glad to bring the dry dock schedule to the next monthly meeting.
At a meeting in the fall last year where Amy Srail asked then-director Goodwin for a copy of the dry-dock schedule, Goodwin had declined and suggested she could file a Freedom of Information request for it.
“I will answer all of your questions,” Dixon said Monday. “You need to hear it from me.”
Dixon also announced that the Swan Quarter ferry will have Wi-Fi this summer in a pilot program. There was a trial period in 2012 on that ferry, but was discontinued. The technology has improved significantly since then, he said.
“Initially, it won’t cost for customers,” he said. “We need proof of the concept, then we’ll figure out the cost.”
Below is a time-lapse video Dixon shared showing the distance between the end of Hatteras island to Ocracoke when it was three-fourths of a mile wide to the two miles wide it is today.