The Corolla, a white pontoon boat with blue trim, arrived at the North Carolina ferry docks in Mann’s Harbor more than 10 years ago, bringing with it hopes of alleviating brutal commutes for schoolchildren living in the town on the Outer Banks that is the boat’s namesake.
It never left.
The bungled effort at ferry service across the Currituck Sound, which began in 2003, landed two state officials under house arrest and cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ed Goodwin, head of the NCDOT Ferry Division, says the state is ready to cut its losses. The boat may end up being sold for scrap if bids don’t come in above the appraised scrap value.
“It’s time to move on with that boat,” said Goodwin, who has served as head of state ferry service for about a year. “I think it’s ridiculous to have a piece of equipment sitting there and just basically rotting away.”
Tim Haas, spokesman for the ferry service, said the state wants the boat gone by the end of the summer.
Previous efforts to sell the boat failed, but Goodwin is especially determined; he is tired of the ill-fated ferry marring the reputation of the division, which operates 22 ferries.
The boat was posted on eBay in 2007, as well as on government surplus sites, but received no viable offers. Many of the bids were laughable, Goodwin said. Some wanted the boat for next to nothing, and no one offered anything close to its original $277,000 price tag.
The boat’s value has fallen even lower since 2007. Almost all of the equipment on the boat, worth about $70,000, according to Goodwin, has been stripped. That includes two new outboard motors that were given to another state agency.
Further diminishing the boat’s value, even a buyer who purchases a new motor and repairs the boat would not be able to drive it off the lot. Built by Trident Florida Trading Company more than 10 years ago, the boat was initially certified for Currituck Sound, Goodwin said, but tests showed it was difficult to operate in coastal waters. He said the boat is best suited for a river.
Selling a ferry boat for scrap would not be unprecedented; the last two boats the division sold when they were no longer serviceable went for scrap, according to Goodwin. But scrapping one that has never made its intended voyage would be a first for the state.
The ill-fated project began in 2003, when Marc Basnight, the former Democratic state senator from nearby Manteo, slipped funding for the ferry into a road maintenance bill in the waning hours of the legislative session.
The boat was intended to alleviate long bus rides for children from Corolla to Currituck County schools on the mainland. Basnight told The News & Observer after passage of the bill that he was persuaded to push for the project when he rode with a constituent on a 21/2-hour commute.
The sound proved ill-suited for ferry service. In addition to high winds and low water levels, the docking area near Corolla was not accessible to a boat without dredging a channel. In 1996 and 2000, federal agencies had denied Currituck County permits for dredging for environmental reasons.
The state ferry division dredged a channel anyway – 730 feet long, 30 feet wide and five feet deep – without getting a permit. Billy R. Moore, then superintendent of dredging and maintenance, pleaded guilty to ordering the dredging, which violated the federal Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act.
Jerry Gaskill, director of the ferry division at the time of the dredging, was convicted of making false statements. He lied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he told them that the operation was an accident, prosecutors said.
“It was a failed project,” Goodwin said. “In hindsight, it probably should never have been done.”
The dredged area was restored by NCDOT at a cost of about $600,000 to the state, and in 2005 a 500-foot dock was approved by the Corps of Engineers to enable the ferry’s run.
New ferry plan
The dock was never built. At the time it was approved, the number of children that would ride the ferry had dwindled to about five. Gas prices had gone up, which would have raised the cost of running the ferry.
Today, Currituck County buses five students from Corolla to mainland schools, Assistant Superintendent Sandy Kinzel said. They face a commute that is at least an hour-and-a-half one way, Kinzel said. As it did 10 years ago, the bus must drive south along the Currituck Sound to the Wright Memorial Bridge near Kitty Hawk, and then back north to the school, which is 10.5 miles across the sound from Corolla.
A ferry-free plan is in the works to reduce travel times across the sound. The N.C. Department of Transportation has approved plans to build a 7-mile-long, two-lane toll bridge connecting Corolla to the mainland. Construction is scheduled to start in 2019 on the $410 million bridge, $237 million of which is expected to be recouped in toll revenues.
The project now has a “direct, clear path for construction,” according to NCDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Heiss, but a funding plan still needs to be completed.
As state officials work to ease the travel burden on Corolla, Ed Goodwin is ready to get rid of the last vestiges of the ferry division’s participation.
“I’ve been on the job for a year, and I’ve been trying to get rid of that boat for a year,” Goodwin said, but added that he will make the best of a bad situation.
“We will get some money out of it,” he said.