Ocracoke passenger ferry is delayed again, but there may still be a boat this summer

The M/V Ocracoke Express passenger ferry was expected to begin making runs between Hattaras and Ocracoke islands on May 14. Because of construction delays, the state is planning to lease another boat instead.
The M/V Ocracoke Express passenger ferry was expected to begin making runs between Hattaras and Ocracoke islands on May 14. Because of construction delays, the state is planning to lease another boat instead. Courtesy of the NCDOT

The new ferry that was supposed to begin carrying passengers between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands on Tuesday won’t be ready anytime soon, and the state is moving to lease a boat to take its place this summer.

The passenger-only Ocracoke Express was conceived as a way to help relieve the pressure on the car ferries that are clogged with tourists in the summer. The N.C. Department of Transportation is spending $9.1 million on the project, which includes additional parking on Hatteras and a new dock and passenger shelter on Ocracoke.

The $4.15 million boat was originally supposed to be finished last April, in time for the 2018 season. But the builder, US Workboats in Hubert, near Swansboro, said it had trouble finding enough workers in specialized trades, especially certified marine welders. They fell behind schedule, said Tim Hass, spokesman for the Ferry Division of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The expected completion date was moved this February, Hass said. When that looked unlikely, the boat’s designers, Elliott Bay Design Group, sent someone to check on the work and noticed that the aluminum welds in the hull were substandard, Hass said. Work was stopped on Feb. 19.

NCDOT, the Coast Guard and US Workboats came up with a plan to fix the problems and work resumed in March, Hass said, but the Ocracoke Express won’t be ready for this summer.

The Ocracoke Express is designed to seat 98 people inside and another 26 outside, with racks for 12 bicycles. It will make the trip between the Hatteras Island ferry terminal and Silver Lake in Ocracoke village in 70 minutes. NCDOT plans to charge up to $15 for a round-trip ticket on the catamaran.

NCDOT has found a similar catamaran-style passenger ferry in New Jersey that’s available for the summer, Hass said. The state needs to bring the boat to North Carolina and run the route to make sure it would work, he said. The boat would make six runs a day — three in each direction — from about Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.

“The whole idea of having a passenger ferry was to alleviate the lines on our ferries at Hatteras,” Hass said. “That usually happens in the summer, and that’s when we want this boat.”

Ocracoke residents hope the new passenger-only boat will help make up for a decline in visitors after the NCDOT reduced the number of car ferry trips between Hatteras and Ocracoke several years ago. Shoaling in Hatteras Inlet forced the car ferries to take a longer route into Pamlico Sound, adding 20 minutes to the trip and reducing the number of runs by up to 30 percent, said Tom Pahl, a Hyde County commissioner who lives on Ocracoke.

“To somebody on the ferry, the added 20 minutes is nothing. People enjoy the ferry ride,” Pahl said in an interview. “But losing about 30 percent of the runs has had a noticeable impact on our businesses and on the economy of the island.”

Pahl, a general contractor who has lived on Ocracoke for 15 years, says opinions vary about whether tourists will pay for a boat ride to the island when the car ferry from Hatteras is free. He said he thinks some people will opt for the Ocracoke Express if it means being able to avoid waiting in line for the car ferry, which can take two to three hours on busy summer days.

Renting the passenger boat from New Jersey would cost about $1 million for the summer. The state budget approved by the House last week includes a provision that allows NCDOT to lease the ferry without taking the time to seek competitive bids.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear yet how much US Workboats will have to pay for not meeting its deadlines. The company’s contract says it will lose $1,000 for each day the boat is not ready beyond Aug. 6, 2018, said NCDOT spokesman Jamie Kritzer, and that penalty is still growing.

Four manufacturers sought the contract to build the Ocracoke Express in the spring of 2017. The $4.15 million bid from Armstrong Marine Inc. of Port Angeles, Wash., was the lowest offer, coming in $1.5 million less than the next competitor. Armstrong Marine subsequently spun off US Workboats as a separate company.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.