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By Connie Leinbach
New passenger-only ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke will likely be launched in the spring of 2019, according to N.C Ferry Division officials.
Delivery of the 98-passenger catamaran-style boat being custom built by U.S. Workboats in Hubert, near Swansboro, was supposed to be ready this month according to the contract, said Jed Dixon, N.C. Ferry Division Deputy Director, at a meeting May 9 of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association civic affairs committee in the Berkley Manor.
But on Friday, the Ferry Division announced at the Passenger Ferry Stakeholders meeting in Manteo that the new boat is taking longer to be built than previously planned.
“The builder is not meeting the schedule,” Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner, said on today (Saturday). “This is not going to be operational until next year.”
Pahl said he, Dixon, and Hyde County Manager Bill Rich will confer Monday morning, and have a further statement. Additionally, the bi-monthly meeting on Ocracoke with the Ferry Division is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday in the Community Center followed by the Ocracoke Waterways Commission at 5:30 p.m.
Dixon said on May 9 and in prior meetings on the island that the ferry was originally expected to be ready by late spring of this year, but it was already having production delays.
A story in the Raleigh “News&Observer” Friday quoted Tim Hass, spokesman for the Ferry Division, that the ship builder has had trouble finding enough skilled workers, especially certified marine welders.
Cost of the boat construction is $4.15 million,
Inside the new boat will be seating for 98, including two wheelchair spaces, and 16 bicycle racks.
Upstairs outdoor seating for 29 won’t be sold but will be for people to be able to spread out. At this point, he said, the trip between the islands is expected to take 70 minutes over the 25-route in the Pamlico Sound.
Dixon said the hull is still being built and is expected to be flipped over in mid-June.
He also said the Ferry Division will hire a passenger ferry company with a three-person crew to run the boat at first so that Ferry Division workers can learn how to operate it.
Attendees at the May 9 OCBA meeting wondered if passengers could purchase tickets one day but return on another day to encourage longer stays on the island.
Dixon said the reservation system and scheduling is still being worked out, he said.
“We don’t want to exclude anyone who wants to use it,” Dixon said. “We won’t know until it’s up and running.”
Infrastructure for the new service—passenger loading docks, additional parking on Ocracoke and Hatteras, and covered waiting areas—is estimated at about $5 million, Dixon said. This new infrastructure is being built on both islands.
Regarding Ocracoke village tram service, the Hyde County commissioners at their May 7 meeting awarded a five-year contract to islander Joseph Ramunni, manager of the Ocracoke Community Store, to operate four passenger trams.
However, Pahl said subsequently that the timing of the rollout of tram service is still under discussion.
According to the contract documents, the first year’s operating costs will be $132,605 the second-year’s costs will be $160,615 and the third through fifth-year’s costs will be $160,065.
N.C. DOT has committed to paying up to $90,000 of the yearly tram costs and Hyde County the rest including maintenance costs, Rich said at the May 9 meeting. The county will request $35,000 from the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax board for two years toward the tram costs.
He said N.C. DOT is purchasing the four trams.
“There’s no cost to the county for the trams themselves,” Rich said.
The trams will carry visitors on a half-hour loop and around the village. All Ocracoke visitors and residents may ride the trams for free.
Signage by the DOT for the eight stops on the loop is still being worked out, Rich said.