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Passenger Ferry Service to Cape Lookout Proposed

Cape Lookout National Seashore is considering ways to facilitate passenger ferry service from Harkers Island to Shackleford Banks, and the lighthouse.

The barrier islands of the southern Outer Banks are famous for their wild horses and remote, uncrowded beaches.  These landmarks, such as Shackleford Banks and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, are only accessible by boat.  But that doesn’t stop people from coming.  Almost 600,000 people visited the Cape Lookout National Seashore last year. Park superintendent Pat Kenney says Cape Lookout is trying to make the barrier islands more accessible to everyone by implementing a passenger ferry service.

 “Following the passage of the Concessions Improvement Act, we started the process of looking at the need for adjusting to our ferries and we completed a plan in 2008 that calls for the creation of concessions and passenger ferries here at Cape Lookout.”

Kenney says the creation of a concession ferry contact would create a gateway to the state park from Beaufort and Harkers Island. 

“The town of Beaufort is actually our partner. They will be providing space inside their new town hall which is the old, historic post office that’s right on front street.  They will be providing dock space right across the street in what is now Grayden Paul Town Park.”

Passenger ferry service would also be available from the Harkers Island Visitors Center.   

 “I think that’s the one thing that we feel is going to be beneficial at both locations is that it allows the visitor to make contact with the national park service, talk to the national park service, and get information about the park before they go across to the island.”

Proposed fees for the State Park’s new ferry service haven’t been revealed, but Kenney speculates the cost could range from 10 to 30 dollars round trip per person.   

“Under the new system, we’d collect franchise fees.  Those revenue would come into the park and be utilized to go right back into improvements for visitors and protection of the park resources.”

A public scoping meeting took place Thursday at the Core Sound Waterfoul Museum during which park officials shared details of the plan, discussed the Environmental Assessment currently underway at the site on Harkers Island, and took comments on improvements needed to facilitate passenger ferry service. Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendant Pat Kenney is excited about the plan.

 “We need to do some changes to the marina here…to ensure that we have adequate dock space and sufficient safety precautions in place for loading and unloading passengers off the boat.  We’re looking at the parking situation, we’re looking at bathroom facilities.”

Cape Lookout National Seashore is also in the process of developing descriptions of services to be provided.  The prospectus will go to privately owned passenger ferry businesses already operating in Down East Carteret County. 

“Then based on that, the proposals received back from interested companies will be evaluated against a set of criteria and then we will make a recommendation and a decision based on that to move forward and select a contractor for that service.”

Perry Barrow has owned and operated Outer Banks Ferry Service in Beaufort for over 25 years.  They currently provide passenger ferry service to the Rachel Carson reserve, carrot island, Shackleford banks, and Cape Lookout Lighthouse.  Barrow says he is interested in contracting with Cape Lookout National Seashore.

 “Who chooses this is an independent committee and part of their selection process is who is most qualified and who’s been doing it the longest and that would be me.”

Barrow says if he gets the contract, he could have a monopoly for the ferry services in a certain location for a certain period to time, which is usually 10 years.

“Once you see the prospectus, they want certain things… larger boats, this and that.  So you know, you can speculate all you want. Until you see the prospectus to bid on it, you don’t know what they want.”

Cape Lookout National Seashore expects the prospectus to be released before the end of 2013.  Barrow says there are about 10 privately owned passenger ferry companies that operate in Harkers Island and Down East Carteret County.  This week, we contacted passenger ferry businesses in Beaufort, Harkers Island and Bogue Banks to hear how the contracted ferry service would impact their business.  While they declined to be taped for interviewed, the consensus was that the new plan would threaten their business.  When asked if Cape Lookout National Seashore was duplicating a service that is already being provided, Park superintendent Pat Kenney says…

“We also feel like under the current situation, we do not have control of the schedule and we can provide regular service to the public that want to go to the national park.”

An estimated 80,000 people use private passenger ferries to access Cape Lookout National Seashore annually.   Kenney believes that by providing its own passenger ferry service, Carteret County and the Cape Lookout National Seashore could see an increase in tourism.

“When they plan visits, they seek out National Parks.  Having a seamless system that as far as transportation to these offshore Islands would potentially result in a growth.”

The Cape Lookout National Seashore released a Passenger Ferry Transportation Feasibility Study which lists how many people would use the ferry service for the next 12 years.  According to the midrange forecast, ridership from Harkers Island could increase by almost 8,000 visitors by the year 2024.  The mid-range estimate for people departing from the Beaufort site would increase by over 6,000 visitors over a 12 year period.  That number may not seem like a lot, but when you factor in the ferry fees, the move would mean more tourism dollars flowing into Harkers Island’s local economy and the preservation of our state’s wildlife and coastal environment.  

Kenney believes the park’s new ferry service could begin operation in the Spring of 2014, once the environmental assessment is complete, facility improvements have been made and local ferry services have been contracted.  The public comment period for the project will remain open through October 15th.  I’m Jared Brumbaugh.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.