Published August 26. 2011 4:00AM
Chester - The state Department of Transportation meeting Thursday was supposed to be a venue for ideas on how to make the Connecticut River ferries more profitable.
But many, still wounded by what they felt were recurring threats by the state DOT to shut down their beloved ferry service, continued to highlight the reasons why the state should keep the Chester-Hadlyme and Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferries open.
Others asked, point blank, about the state's long-term plans for the ferries.
"Will we all be here in two years, singing our ferry songs and wearing our T-shirts?" East Haddam resident Kacey Elfstrom asked.
Indeed, many of the 50 or so people in the audience at the Chester Meeting House were wearing "Save the Chester-Hadlyme ferry" T-shirts. Some shirts included the words "I'm a proud ferry godmother" (or godfather) on the back.
James P. Redeker, who earlier Thursday was appointed DOT commissioner (he was previously the interim), was sympathetic. He didn't know what the future held for ferry service, he said, but that's why he wanted to have the meeting: to develop ideas to stop the service from operating at such a deficit that the DOT considered shutting it down every few years.
The Chester-Hadlyme ferry, Redeker said, operates on a $284,000 annual deficit. The two ferries combined lose about half a million dollars a year, according to the DOT.
"There is not another transit service ... that pays for itself. None of them make money. So there's no expectation that the ferries will do that," Redeker said, adding later, "But it is our obligation to be good stewards of our services. ... And I think we have work to do there. I know it. We can make it better. And that's why we're here."
The DOT held a similar meeting Monday in Rocky Hill for supporters of the other ferry upriver. The two meetings were originally held as a way of gathering public input on the DOT's plan to shutter the two ferries, a move triggered by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's "Plan B" budget cuts.
As part of those cuts, all eight crew members of the two ferries were scheduled to lose their jobs Thursday. But a new concessions deal that state employees' unions voted to accept last week obviated the need for the layoffs.
Suggestions for making the ferries more profitable ranged from increasing fares to creating an adopt-the-ferry program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program to creating a special lottery to benefit the ferries.
Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said the Estuary Transit District was studying the possibility of forming a partnership with the state to run the Chester-Hadlyme ferry.
Redeker, who disarmed the crowd Thursday by cracking jokes and praising the ferries, said a task force made up of volunteers would work with the DOT to document the use and need for the ferries and implement new money-generating ideas.
A group to be called "Friends of the Connecticut River Ferries" might also form to help raise funds for and promote the ferries.
Promotion, ferry supporters said, was key. While plenty of tourists travel long distances to come take a ride on the Chester-Hadlyme ferry, many don't know the ferry is even there, they said.
Patrick Ahlberg, who grew up in Lyme, suggested the DOT develop a historic trail, or some sort of designated route along Ferry Road, to encourage tourists to ride the ferry.
"That gives someone direction," he said. "If you don't really know about the ferries, no one's going to go."