ESSEX - Many local residents are eagerly anticipating the beginning of ferry service at the site of the recently closed Champlain Bridge, but some fear a more northerly crossing may suffer as a result.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation is currently in negotiations with Lake Champlain Transportation (LCT), operators of year-round ferries on the lake, for ferry service between Crown Point and Chimney Point, Vt.
LCT Operations Manager Heather Stewart said the company, owned by Ray Pecor, III, still has yet to decide how it will manage ferry service at the new docks, which are still under construction.
"We're still formulating what we need to do," said Stewart, noting the company is waiting to see the directives that are handed down from officials on both sides of the lake. "We don't know what they will request for ferries."
Stewart said the likely scenario would be to send two of LCT's five icebreaking ferries to serve the Crown Point crossing. The other three would remain in service at the Plattsburgh-Grand Isle crossing.
If that is done, LCT would likely put the ferry boat Adirondack into service as the lone ferry at the Essex-Charlotte crossing, said Stewart, but the boat, which was built in 1913, has a riveted hull that is not suitable for operation in ice conditions. It has traditionally served LCT's Port Kent-Burlington crossing, which closes from mid-October through May.
In the meantime, Stewart said, LCT is already making plans to expand the Essex-Charlotte crossing to 24-hour service, effective Dec. 28, in order to serve commuters who work late shifts. Currently, the latest ferry leaves Essex at 9:30 p.m.
"We've hired a lot of new deckhands and dock masters, and we're trying to get them trained to keep those hours open," said Stewart. "That's been our focus right now."
Some people in and around Essex are concerned, however, that the Essex-Charlotte crossing may have to close if there are no icebreaker ferries left there to operate.
Willsboro resident Rebecca Palmer said she contacted Stewart earlier this month after hearing about the possibility of the ferry closing. She has since been passing out flyers to ferry commuters urging them to contact their local and state officials.
"I applaud Lake Champlain Transportation for really stepping up to the plate when the bridge closed," said Palmer. "What I don't feel Lake Champlain Transportation has done well is being a good steward of communication. They could have done a better job of communicating with residents about what is happening."
LCT has traditionally limited its service to one ferry at the Essex-Charlotte crossing from late December through early April, but without an icebreaker ferry there, the crossing would likely have to close during much of that time.
"Basically, what happens is that Essex is going to be a prisoner of Mother Nature," said Palmer, noting that some people may have to travel an extra 90 miles or more on wintery roads as a detour for their daily commute or regular medical appointments.
Stewart said the Crown Point crossing is anticipated to handle roughly 3,500 cars per day. The Essex-Charlotte ferry carries only 100 cars per day during the winter months. However, she said, ridership on the ferry has more than doubled since the bridge's closing.
New York Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward said LCT has been communicating with her office, VTrans, and the state Department of Transportation to find a solution.
"I have visited Vermont officials and expressed my interest in keeping the Essex crossing open as well as providing coverage at Crown Point," said Sayward, "and everyone is trying to work toward that end."
One of the major issues is weather, said Sayward, noting that LCT has much more flexibility if a contract is approved before the lake ices over. Also, any new boats brought in for use as ferries have to be a specific size to fit the docks.
"The canal is shut down for the winter, so even if a [new] ferry was available, it would have to be dismantled at Whitehall and put back together to get it up to Lake Champlain," Sayward explained. "This could take months."
Palmer noted that LCT can't be blamed for the shortage of winter-worthy ferries.
"Trey Pecor's hands are really tied," she said, "he only has as many boats as he has."
LCT has already taken to ordering a new ferry, said Stewart, which will be built in Florida and delivered in October 2010.
Until then, ferry riders can go to www.ferries.com to sign up for alerts and updates through either e-mails or cell phone texts.