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The state Department of Transportation has issued a public notice of its intent to close the state's two Connecticut River ferries.
The "Notice of Alteration of Scenic Roads" for routes 148 and 160 gives residents until Sept. 5 to send in written comments on the planned closure of the Chester-Hadlyme ferry and the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry. The notice is scheduled to run in four newspapers - The Day, The Hartford Courant, The Middletown Press and The Glastonbury Citizen - multiple times through Sept. 5, said DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick.
Because the notice sets a Sept. 5 date for the end of the public comment period, Nursick said there is a chance the ferries will continue to run until at least then and that the planned layoff of the two boats' eight employees - originally scheduled to go into effect Aug. 25 - will be extended until the DOT makes a final decision on the issue.
"Nothing is cut in stone at this point," Nursick said. "Just like closing the ferries is not necessarily cut in stone. There are still variables in motion that can change the outcome here. There's nothing definitive about anything that we've proposed cutting or eliminating at this point, because, again, we are kind of in a state of flux here with the union concessions package voted on probably in the next couple of weeks."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued thousands of layoff notices last month as part of a plan to reduce the state work force by about 13 percent. The layoffs became necessary when a state union coalition voted down concessions that would have helped fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget.
The coalition has since reached a new concessions agreement and must finish voting on it by Aug. 18.
Lack of a public notice was one of two reasons the town of Lyme last month took the state to court in an effort to stop the state from shutting down ferry service. In its July 22 lawsuit, Lyme contended that the DOT broke two state laws when it laid off the ferries' eight employees.
One states that the DOT commissioner will maintain and operate the ferries at the state's expense. The second says that before the state makes any changes to a scenic road, it must first publish a public notice in a newspaper and then allow for a period of public comment.
"It's always been our intent (to publish the notice). We've just gotten around to it," Nursick said. "Obviously, we've got a lot on our plates over here. The ferries are just one very small portion of major cuts that we have made here in the DOT associated with the budget deficit that needs to be filled due to a lack of union concessions agreement."
More DOT employees have received layoff notices - 499 - than any other department in state government.
Meanwhile, Lyme and the DOT are scheduled to appear in New Britain Superior Court at 10 a.m. today for a preliminary hearing on the lawsuit.
Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said Wednesday that the DOT's public notice didn't change the town's plan to request a stay - that is, get the courts to stop the DOT from both laying off the ferry employees and eliminating ferry service.
"Whether or not the intent to publish takes one of those arguments off the table - who knows?" Eno said. "But nonetheless, I think that given the uncertainties involved in this whole situation, if we're going to protect the ferries, we need to stay on course to get a stay."
The town of East Haddam has committed $1,000 to the fight to keep the ferries open, and the town of Rocky Hill will in court today petition for intervenor status, Eno said. Chester's first selectman, Tom Marsh, made a verbal commitment to join in on the lawsuit but has since left Chester for another job, Eno said.
While towns that have the two ferries as neighbors have been adamant about the need to keep the historic modes of transportation alive, Nursick said the DOT was "in the business of operating an efficient and effective transportation infrastructure," not operating "a historical society."
"We've got to keep the big picture here," Nursick said. "Everyone's focusing very much on the ferries. But when you're talking about the ferries, most state roads and bridges … carry that amount of traffic in a day that the ferries carry in an entire season. So from an efficiency standpoint, they are substantially subpar," he said.
"When you look at the ferries, they're somewhat upside-down to the fact that they carry a very small amount of vehicles, and they lose about half a million dollars every year."
The Chester-Hadlyme ferry last year carried about 35,000 vehicles, while the Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry carried about 17,000, Nursick said. In contrast, the DOT's average daily traffic count for the Raymond E. Baldwin Bridge on Interstate 95 is 81,000 vehicles a day, and the East Haddam swing bridge sees 9,800 vehicles daily.
Written comments on the planned closure of the ferries can be emailed to Philip Scarrozzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or sent to the Connecticut Department of Transportation, Bureau of Public Transportation, 2800 Berlin Turnpike, Newington, CT 06131-7546. The envelope or subject line should read "Comment on intent to close ferry service."