Editor’s note: Since this story is evolving, check back here for updates.
By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke should have a passenger ferry this year starting May 24, thanks to a lawmaker friend in Raleigh.
John A. Torbett (R-Gaston) said Wednesday night that while in budget meetings Tuesday, Secretary of the Department of Transportation James Trogdon said he would pay for leasing a passenger ferry from May 24 to Sept. 22 out of his budget.
“Typically, I’d budget that (in an appropriation) but the secretary said he’d get it done,” Torbett said.
Torbett, who is chair of the House Transportation Appropriations Committee, said the deal has not yet been inked, but he expects it to be done by mid next week. He wasn’t sure if the Senate would have to approve since the money is in Trogden’s budget.
Torbett did not want Ocracoke Island to be forgotten.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “My interest is to get it now for the season. I told them: ‘We owe it to them (Ocracoke). They need something and they deserve something,’ and all my chairs agreed.”
Torbett said the ferry will be leased from Seastreak, a private ferry company operating in the Port of New York and New Jersey and in New England.
The 102-day rental of the 147-seat vessel will cost $867,000, not including fuel, Torbett said.
The propeller-driven boat is a two-deck catamaran-style aluminum boat built in 2005.
He said that prior to today’s approvals, the Ferry Division met with the owner of Seastreak on March 29 in Hatteras and a test run was done on the route, though Torbett did not know whether that run was done with the proposed rental vessel.
Torbett said the Ferry Division also looked into purchasing a used boat.
“And that’s available,” he said. “We’ll keep that in the hunt.”
The DOT is continuing the conversation with US Workboats, which has been building a new passenger ferry, the Ocracoke Express, since 2017.
“If the new one is dead, we might purchase one,” Torbett said.
That aluminum, catamaran-style ferry was scheduled to debut on May 14 and carry up to 98 passengers on a 70-minute trip from Hatteras directly into Ocracoke Village.
The N.C. Dept. of Transportation in 2017 awarded a $4.15 million contract to Armstrong Marine Inc. in Swansboro to build the new boat, but Armstrong is now U.S. Workboats.
Last June, the Ferry Division announced that the new boat was taking longer to build than planned. Citing a lack of welders, the Ferry Division said the boat would not be ready for last year’s tourist season. They suggested it might be ready in the fall, but the fall came and went with no boat.
This year, work on the vessel stopped on Feb. 19 after a report from Elliott Bay Design Group, Seattle, Wash., who designed it, identified “several issues with the construction, among which were many of the aluminum welds. A follow-up Coast Guard inspection confirmed these issues,” said Ferry Division Spokesman Tim Hass in an email.
Torbett said Jed Dixon, Ferry Division deputy director, told his committee several days ago that about 70 percent of the welds failed.
Since then, Hass said, US Workboats submitted a plan for remediation that was approved by both the Coast Guard and NCDOT, and work resumed March 25.
“However, US Workboats has been instructed not to perform any weld work on the hull without the presence of our quality assurance specialist,” Hass said.