Thinking Outside the Box – Could a Ferry System be the Answer to Hatteras Island Transportation Woes
By Kip Tabb –
Dr. Stanley Riggs has been saying for a number of years that we need to develop a ferry system to keep Hatteras Island connected with the rest of the world. I talked to Dr. Riggs about five or six years ago for an article I was writing on the Bonner Bridge and he mentioned the idea to me at the time.
I contacted a number of marine transportation engineers and shallow draft ferry manufacturers, mentioned to them how many cars would have to be moved on a weekend in the summer, listened to their answers and concluded that Dr. Riggs was out of his mind.
In researching this article I had a chance to talk to Dr. Riggs again, and after reviewing what he had to say, I have decided that maybe his idea is not quite as crazy as I had first thought.
This article, then, is going to be part mea culpa (I’m confessing that I should have asked better questions the first time around), mostly information and some opinion.
At the heart of this discussion is what can we realistically do to preserve the shoreline of the Outer Banks. If we accept that the fragile nature of the Outer Banks – especially Hatteras Island – will make preserving sections of SR12 more and more problematic and expensive, then we accept that we must find an alternative.
The transportation network that Dr. Riggs envisions would include shallow draft passenger ferries, not the vehicle ferries that currently ply North Carolina waterways. It would also be a part of an overall transportation concept that could include air taxis using the waterways for landing zones and a continuation of the road system where it could be preserved.
If a ferry system is going to be developed for Hatteras Island, it would be developed over time. “There are ways to step into this gently,” Dr. Riggs says. “It may not be wise to just drop the highway system.”
This would be an extremely expensive undertaking, but Dr. Riggs points out, with some justification, that the expense of repairing the road is only one part of the equation. “What did the storm (Hurricane Irene) cost those businesses down on Hatteras Island?” he asks. “If we spend one billion dollars over the next 10 years trying to keep the roads open, would we have been better off with an existing ferry system?”
This is an idea that needs to be examined, but in doing so, we have to acknowledge that ferries, even shallow draft ferries, come with an environmental cost. Because Pamlico sound is so shallow, some dredging will occur. The wake a ferry creates does have an impact. What needs to be evaluated is whether the environmental impact a ferry system – especially one on the scale that would be needed – would be greater than the impact of maintaining the road system.
There is neither infrastructure nor personnel available to pursue this idea at this time. And the infrastructure needs, especially, are massive. Dr. Riggs envisions an intra-village transportation network similar to the system currently used on Bald Head Island.
Bald Head Island, however, is a relatively compact area where a network of electric carts and trolleys can move people comfortably and quickly. The logistics of moving people from village to village along 30 or 40 miles of coastline seemed far more complex.
There are other infrastructure needs as well. If people are going to take a passenger ferry to Hatteras Island, there will have to be some place to park their cars on the mainland side. And, as we have seen in the aftermath of Irene, at this point in time there is no facility on the Outer Banks that can handle the volume of ferry traffic or people needed to accomplish this.
Nonetheless, it may be time to think about the choices facing us. “It’s getting harder and harder to move people on a road that’s not there,” Dr. Riggs observes. “We can do better than we did.”