Ferries' friends want state reprieve 'in writing'

Buy Photo Tim Cook/The Day The Chester-Hadlyme ferry makes its way across the Connecticut River on April 1, its first day of operation for the 2011 season.

Lyme - News from the governor's office was clear Friday: The Connecticut River ferries are safe from closure.

The state Department of Transportation had the same message. The eight employees of the Chester-Hadlyme and Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferries will keep their jobs on the ferries.

"I can't talk about 100 years from now, or 25 years from now, but I think, clearly, the message here is that without question ... the ferries will be open," DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said. "And I would expect that the next operational season for a couple of years will remain open as well."

The DOT will now focus on ways to make the ferries more cost-effective, Nursick said. A local public transportation provider is looking at the possibility of partnering with the state to run the Chester-Hadlyme ferry, and meetings next week originally scheduled to discuss the planned closure of the ferries will now solicit ideas to reduce the cost of running the ferries.

But those in the middle of the ever-changing next chapter in the story of the two state-run ferries remained guarded Friday.

Until the DOT rescinds the layoff notices issued last month to all eight members of the two ferries, Chester-Hadlyme Capt. Tom Darcy said he would remain cautiously optimistic.

"I'll still wait till I get something in writing," he said.

Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno, who took the DOT to court last month in a failed effort at a legal recourse to keep the ferries open, was similarly skeptical.

"Until we have something in writing that's definite, that they will not close, that they will run through the next two-year budget cycle, I think folks need to be on their guard," Eno said.

Eno and Humphrey Tyler, who organized the local "Save the Ferries" movement through the Hadlyme Public Hall Association, questioned why the DOT hadn't, as of Friday afternoon, suspended the public notice it issued earlier this month on its intent to close the two ferries.

The notice is required by state law before the DOT can make any changes to scenic roads, which both ferry routes on Route 148 in Chester and Hadlyme and Route 160 in Rocky Hill and Glastonbury are.

"... rescinding closure notice will mean that DOT has dropped any thought of closing ferries in the foreseeable future," Tyler said in an email Friday. "If commissioner does not rescind closure notice and does not cancel comment period, it means DOT is keeping possible closure of ferries on the table ..."

Nursick said the DOT had not yet taken action on the issue simply as a matter of logistics; the notice would likely be rescinded next week, he said.

"Obviously, things have just happened yesterday, so there's a lot of wheels in motion now," Nursick said, referring to state workers' approval of the governor's concessions package.

Meanwhile, the Estuary Transit District's board of directors Friday morning created a subcommittee to explore the possibility of forming a partnership with the state to run the Chester-Hadlyme ferry.

The transit district, which provides bus service to its nine member towns and beyond, is fueled by federal and state funds as well as by money from member towns, said board Chairman Richard Cabral.

A partnership may help "avoid, in the future, this pretty much biennial exercise that requires everybody to start wringing their hands and build grass-roots support in keeping (the ferry) running," said Eno, a board member who was appointed Friday to the subcommittee. "We'd like some continuity and some stability to this issue."

The DOT will welcome ideas from the public to make the ferries more profitable at two public information sessions next week - in Rocky Hill on Monday and Chester on Thursday, Nursick said.

"The bottom line is that we have a service that is operating at a substantial loss, and it's providing a service to a very, very limited constituency," Nursick said. "And in tough times, we need to try to close those deficits. We don't have the funding available like we did in years past where we could absorb these losses."

The two historic ferries, combined, lose about a half-million dollars every year, according to Nursick.

Possible fixes range from privatization of ferry service to partnerships to fare increases, Nursick said.

"We're more than happy to hear any input on this," he said. "Outside the box thinking is welcome."

It has been a roller-coaster summer for the ferries. Thought to be safe from budget cuts last fall, the ferry crew learned in July that they would be laid off Aug. 25 as part of thousands of positions Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was eliminating to fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget.

State employees' unions voted this week to accept a new concessions deal that will save a majority of the jobs and programs from elimination.

j.cho@theday.com

If you go

Who: State DOT
What: Public information sessions on ferry service
When: 6 to 8 p.m., Aug. 22 and Aug. 25
Where: Aug. 22: Rocky Hill Town Hall, 761 Old Main St., Rocky Hill; Aug. 25: Chester Meeting House, 4 Liberty St., Chester.

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