Money is cut for ferry replacement in Woodland
By Ronald MacArthur
The plans to replace the Woodland Ferry have hit a financial roadblock - along with many other proposed DelDOT projects across the state. According to Darrell Cole, a public relations officer with DelDOT, the new ferry was on the list of projects cut in this year’s budget.
“Right now, it’s not in the budget,” he said. “We can’t do the replacement as soon as we hoped. We are trying to find some more options to see if there is any light at the end of the tunnel, but we can’t spend what we don’t have.”
After several public hearings and even a survey among ferry users, DelDOT officials announced plans to replace the aging “Virginia C” with a new upgraded six-vessel ferry with new launching areas on each side of the Nanticoke River. The projected cost of the project was just under $1 million, and it was scheduled to begin following the Woodland Ferry Festival in mid-September.
That has been put on hold until at least next year.
“None of the projects put on hold are trivial. We are in a no-win situation,” Cole said.
Since the announcement, Joe Wright, DelDOT south district engineer, has been in the process of changing gears as far as the ferry is concerned. With the 44-year-old ferry now expected to be in service for at least another year, maintenance becomes an issue.
The ferry was scheduled to be pulled out of the water for a cursory inspection by the Coast Guard; now that inspection has been stepped up a notch.
“Now we are in the process of coordinating the five-year inspection of the ferry with the Coast Guard,” he said on Monday. “Traditionally that occurs in early August and the ferry has to be pulled out of the water. Depending on the cost and the amount of repairs, it could be out a significant amount of time. We hope that it doesn’t need significant repairs, but it’s very unpredictable.
“We are very disappointed just like everybody else,” he added.
That could mean that the ferry would in dry dock during the popular Woodland Ferry Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10. Part of the attraction of the festival is the opportunity to take rides on the ferry since it is closed to vehicle traffic that day.
Wright said that it may be possible to delay the inspection until after the festival. “They [Coast Guard] have worked with us in the past, but the details have to be worked out. Maybe they will wait until after the festival,” he added. “We are in a little bit of turmoil right now.”
Wright noted that the completion of the project to improve the intersection at U.S. 13 and 13A north of Seaford is also in jeopardy.
Sen. Robert Venables (D-Laurel) said that the future is not bright either. “It’s projected, that unless something major is not done, there could be up to a $500 million shortfall next year,” he said. “We had to cut $287 million out of DelDOT’s budget this year because the money is not there.”
Venables is serving on a special committee appointed by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner to study DelDOT’s financial situation. The committee will meet this summer with a report due to the governor in October.
“But the mechanism we have to alleviate this problem - raising tolls, taxes and fees - with an election year coming on, I don’t think the legislators are going to go along with it,” he added.
Venables feels that two measures need to be taken: 1. Gradually move the DelDOT operating out of the Transportation Fund back to the general fund (it was $211 million this past year); 2. Study the idea of selling the Rt. 1 bypass to private investors “as long as there is some control in the cost of tolls,” according to Venables. He said that the sale could generate as much as $1 billion.
“I’m in shock. I know the rest of the association is going to be upset by this,” said Roger Hamrick, the president of the Woodland Ferry Association. “We thought that our state legislators had earmarked special money for this project. It’s embarrassing that our governor can find millions to buy golf courses but nothing for projects like this,” he added.
“There is not a whole lot we can do. I guess the key now is to make sure the ferry stays in the water until after the festival,” he said.
Most of the proposed increases in fees to help fund projects, which provide the funds for DelDOT’s Transportation Trust Fund, were not passed by the General Assembly. Increased tolls on I-95 in New Castle County were approved but not increases on tolls on the Rt. 1 bypass or increases in other fees and services provided by the department.
“There’s a lot of work that, unfortunately, is going to have to be put on hold for a while until we work out our long-term finances,” said Nathan Hayward, secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation.
“We are pushing ahead as rapidly and as aggressively as we possibly can on lots of things that must be done, but we’re also having to put on hold for a while lots of projects that we would like to do and that people want us to do. That’s the essence of our problem,” he said.
He noted that revenue in the general fund (which does not fund transportation projects) has grown 74 percent over the past 10 years, while the Transportation Trust Fund has grown 29 percent over the same time period.
Major projects, costing nearly $1 billion, include improvements on I-95, the Indian River Bridge (the project has been delayed), and Rt. 301
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