A boat purchased by the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division for a new ferry route across the shallow Currituck Sound does not meet the requirement that it be able to operate in 18 inches of water.
The Division of Marine Fisheries inspected the boat and determined that it might require more than 42 inches of water to operate. While the boat was delivered to the state shipyard in Manns Harbor in August, the operating limitations of the vessel became public only recently. Ferry Division Administrative Officer Charles Utz told Carolina Journal, “The operating depth of the boat is 31 inches.”
But Utz did not respond to an important question: ”Who was responsible for making sure the vessel met the specifications at the time of delivery?”
While the Ferry Division is to operate the 50-foot, 49-passenger pontoon boat, Currituck County had agreed to establish a docking facility on the Corolla end of the 10-mile route. The planned landing area is referred to as Currituck Heritage Park. The 40-acre site includes the historic Whalehead Club owned by Currituck County, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, and the Wildlife Resources Commission’s new Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education. A private developer that previously owned the property had installed boat docks, but access to the area is limited because of the shallow sound bottom.
As first reported last week in The Daily Advance of Elizabeth City, the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Division of Coastal Management, both in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, last month denied Currituck County’s request for a permit to build a dock on the Corolla side of the route.
According to a memo from the Fisheries Division, the dock extension of 178 feet would still leave the ferry boat operating in water that was too shallow. The operation would have ”significant adverse impacts on marine and estuarine resources.”
The writer of the memo, Northern District Manager Sara Winslow, said, “According to Jerry Gaskill, N.C. DOT ferry director, the ferry will operate in approximately 18 inches of water, however, during on-site interagency meetings, Mr. Gaskill stated the actual operating depth of the vessel is approximately 27 inches.” The memo also said that Lynn Mathis, of the Division of Coastal Management, inspected the ferry and said, “The operating draft would be 42 inches with no wave action and not the 27 inches as previously indicated.”
The specifications called for a 49-passenger vessel able to operate in 18 inches of water. Daniel Noe, a marine quality assurance specialist in the Ferry Division, developed the boat specifications and was the liaison to the boat builder until he was transferred off the project in May 2004. Noe died unexpectedly April 15, 2005.
In November 2003 DOT Secretary Lyndo Tippett authorized the purchase of the boat from Trident Florida Trading, LLC of Tavares, Florida which was the only bidder.
Trident originally bid $304,000 but later reduced the price to $207,000 because of a negotiated delay in delivery. With change orders, however, the final price paid for the boat was just under $300,000.
The pontoon diameter of the delivered boat is 42 inches, not 36 inches as submitted in Trident’s bid, which may be a contributing factor to the increased depth needed to operate the vessel. CJ was unable to determine who in the Ferry Division approved the change orders.
State Purchasing Manager Percy Richardson told CJ, “We made the award based on the information that was submitted by the Ferry Division. It was awarded at a negotiated price based on a delivery concession. We don’t inspect all purchases. The acceptance of the vessel was the responsibility of the Ferry Division.” When asked what to do with a boat that doesn’t meet specifications, Richardson said, “As a consumer, the state is stuck with the boat.”
Currituck County officials said the ferry service was necessary because students living on the Currituck County section of the Outer Banks would no longer be able to attend Dare County schools because of crowding. School officials initially said about 40 students would be involved, but that number now is about 10 students.
They said the bus ride to the mainland, entirely by land, was too long. With State Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight of Dare County as the driving force, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $834,000 in June 2003 for the project. Annual operating costs are estimated to be more than $400,000.
The ferry service was scheduled to be in operation by May 2004. DOT documents show that dredging at Corolla was necessary and was included in the project budget, but neither Currituck County nor DOT had applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1996 and 2000 the Corps denied Currituck County dredging permits it had submitted for the same site. A May 2003 feasibility study presented to the General Assembly by Gaskill failed to mention those denials.
The project stalled in June 2004 when state and local environmental officials learned that DOT Ferry Division supervisor Bill Moore used a workboat’s propellers to cut a channel in the shallow sound at the Corolla end of the route. Moore, who was superintendent of dredge and field maintenance, is now retired. He reported directly to Gaskill. Both he and Gaskill said the dredging was accidental. Moore said that he and other employees did not “kick a channel” with the boat’s propellers, but that they marked the channel. In August 2004, state and federal law enforcement officials led, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division and carrying search warrants, raided the Ferry Division offices.
Gaskill and Moore were the focus of the raid. Returned search warrants indicated officials were looking for information that would explain who gave Moore instructions to dredge. An EPA spokesman told CJ that the investigation is ongoing but that he could not offer further comment.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.