Ferry saga leaves us with sinking feeling

Published 6:31 am Tuesday, October 16, 2007

By Staff
The saga of the Corolla ferry would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Corolla is an isolated village on the tip of a barrier island in Currituck County near the Virginia line. We assume that those who choose to live there do so because it’s isolated. The village has a year-round population of about 500 people.
The hitch is a few of those people are children.
There are no schools in Corolla, and the nearest Currituck County schools are on the mainland. There was a time when some Corolla parents sent their children to Dare County schools. Kitty Hawk is just 21 miles down road, and even though it’s in another county, sending children to schools there made sense.
That is until 2002. That was when Dare County said it would no longer accept students from outside the county because of crowding in the Dare County school system. It set a deadline of 2004 for Currituck County to assimilate the students into the Currituck school system.
Currituck County’s geography is somewhat like Beaufort County’s in that a body of water cuts it in two. In Beaufort County’s case, it’s the Pamlico River. In Currituck County’s case, it would be the Currituck Sound. For students, it would be like living in Pamlico Beach but the only school was across the river in Aurora.
North Carolina law says that if you have a child going to a public school and don’t live near a school, the state is responsible for getting the child to school.
From that point on, it appears reason flew out the window. The attempts to fix the problem may have been well-intentioned, but they were flawed.
The first solution was to just bus the Corolla children. When it started, 20 students made the two-hour, one-way trip to the mainland on a bus provided by the school system. That cost is estimated at $21,600 a year for bus, driver and fuel.
But as time wore on, fewer and fewer children were riding the bus. Now, one child rides the bus. and it still costs $21,600 a year if there is one child or a busload of children.
As expensive as the bus route seems, the Department of Transportation found a way to top it. It proposed buying a new ferry to run the children back and forth across the Currituck Sound. It seems nothing went right after that point.
The state contracted with a Florida-based company to build a ferry. It would seat 49 people and cost $270,000. That’s not it. The operating budget to run the ferry has been estimated at $400,000, before recent increases in fuel costs. For the child, or children, the ferry would be faster than a bus, but it would still take 45 minutes for the 11-mile trip across the sound.
Then the U.S. Coast Guard got involved, saying the ferry bought by the state wasn’t certified to operate in open waters like Currituck Sound.
Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. Even if the ferry was certified to operate, it would need a dock. A Virginia company put together the specifications for it, at a cost to taxpayers of $49,900 for just the plans. The cost to build the dock would be $200,000.
DOT finally decided the ferry wouldn’t work and put the boat up for sale this month on eBay, the Internet Web site that sells items. Even that wouldn’t work. It set a starting bid at $200,000, $70,000 less than the state paid for it, and even at that got no bidders as of the close of the auction Monday.
We have to wonder what would have happened if elected and appointed officials had stopped to think a little harder before they started spending money. What would it have taken if the state or county officials had approached Dare County when they put the moratorium on outside students that started this whole mess? For the amount of money that has been spent on a ferry that doesn’t run, the state could have paid to build a classroom for Dare County if crowding is an issue. For the amount of money Currituck County has spent on busing students, it could have struck a deal and agreed to pay that to the other system to help with the overcrowding, and everybody would have come out a winner.
There are probably 100 different ways to skin this cat, and nobody sat down long enough to think of even one that works.