The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week wrapped up a four-month dredging project that was supposed to clean out the clogged-up navigation channel across Hatteras Inlet, but shifting sands have kept the state Ferry Division from restoring regular service on the four-mile route that was closed in January.
The Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry will continue to follow a 10-mile detour that loops into Pamlico Sound, until more dredging can be scheduled in mid-May to open up a few sand-filled stretches of the preferred channel.
“This is an ongoing challenge for us to keep this route open,” Richard Walls, a deputy transportation secretary, told state Board of Transportation members Wednesday. “We use the alternate route when we have to, but we do not want to use it because it costs a lot more money and takes a lot more time.”
The new shoaling means a longer ride – about 70 minutes, instead of 40 minutes on the regular route – for passengers on the state’s busiest ferry run. And that is already causing longer backups as Outer Banks tourists and residents wait at the ferry dock.
The Corps of Engineers dredge was supposed to scour out a channel 100 feet wide and 12 feet deep, roomy enough for two ferries to pass each other. Ferry officials had predicted that it would eliminate worries about ferries running aground and service being interrupted again during the summer months.
But last week, after the dredging was completed, ferry officials discovered the new shoaling.
“It’s eight feet deep in one spot, and it’s difficult to maneuver a ferry through it,” said Jed Dixon, DOT’s deputy ferry director. “In some places the channel is so narrow you can’t pass a ferry with another ferry. It’s only wide enough for one-way passage.”
At least some of the shoaling has occurred in the past couple of weeks, DOT officials said. It wasn’t clear whether the Corps of Engineers dredging contractor had missed some spots. Corps of Engineers officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Shoaling has become a growing problem at Hatteras Inlet over the past several years. Just as coastal highways were covered with water and sand after Hurricanes Irene and Sandy passed along the Outer Banks in 2011 and 2012, some of the navigation channels also were filled with sand. At the same time, federal funding cutbacks reduced the Corps of Engineers’ ability to keep up its normal dredging schedules.
Harold Thomas, the DOT ferry director, said he hoped to see a Corps of Engineers dredge return for a few days of “touch-up work” in mid-May.
Meanwhile, ferry service will improve after May 7 when DOT moves to its summer schedule, adding 12 daily trips in each direction. The ferries will run every 30 minutes – instead of the current 60 minutes – between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
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