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Residents want to keep state's ferries afloat

Lyme - Residents upset about the elimination of the state's two local ferries learned from town and state representatives Sunday night that two state laws could potentially save the ferry service and the eight employees who received layoff notices.

According to the state, the maiden voyage of the 1655 Rocky Hill-Glastonbury ferry solidifies it as the "oldest continuously operating ferry service" while the Chester-Hadlyme ferry began its service in 1769. Seasonally, the two ferries have been transporting people across the Connecticut River for a combined 598 years.

But last week, the eight employees who work on the ferries received a letter informing them that as of Aug. 25, they will no longer have jobs because the ferry service will be eliminated.

The layoffs are part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to reduce the state work force by about 13 percent to fill a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget. According to the state Department of Transportation, in 2009-10, it cost the state $338,706 to run the Chester-Hadlyme ferry which generated $106,302 in revenue that year.

On Sunday night ferry supporters at the Hadlyme Public Hall learned about a state statute that states the ferries shall be maintained and operated by the Commissioner of Transportation at the expense of the state.

The second statute designated the ferry route as a local scenic road and that prior to altering or improving a state highway or portion of the highway, the Commissioner of Transportation shall post a notice describing the alterations or improvements. Following the posting of the notice, a public comment period should follow.

Lyme First Selectman Ralph Eno said there had been no public notice or comment period.

Eno said he plans to meet with the town attorney today and that by the end of the week, have enough of a legal strategy to file an action in Superior Court to stop the layoffs.

Humphrey Tyler, a member of the board of the Hadlyme Public Hall Association who is heading the group's efforts to save the ferries, wouldn't speculate Sunday whether the towns affected by the possible loss of the ferry service could band together and run it themselves.

"We're not at the point to speculate about what-ifs, our goal is to keep the ferries running under DOT," he said. "Other alternatives have popped up, but there hasn't been any study or discussion about operation of the ferries by anyone other than the state."

Supporters also used the meeting to discuss ideas on how to save the two ferries. Volunteers plan to distribute 3x5 cards to people riding on the ferries in the upcoming days.

The cards ask those who are enjoying the ride on the Chester-Hadlyme ferry to make three calls during the ride: one to the governor, one to the director of the Commission on Culture & Tourism and one to the Economic & Community Development commissioner.

One resident suggested "email blasting" the governor's office.

"Hit him with emails," the resident said, to which one resident replied, "Especially on the 21st, it's his birthday."

The standing-room only crowd erupted into laughter.

State Rep. Philip Miller, D-Essex, who said he met with the governor's representatives on Friday, called the ferries "working parts of the state's infrastructure."

"Some people might view the ferries as a regional thing," Miller said. "When we're trying to have a (economic) recovery, to remove existing pieces of our infrastructure doesn't make sense. We want to build on the future instead of removing a vital piece of it."

j.hanckel@theday.com

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