Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Bald Head Island intervenes in request to decrease ferry frequency, appeals sale decision

The Bald Head Island Transportation Authority is awaiting one more appointee to its board before commencing its public operations over the private Bald Head Island ferry system. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY VILLAGE OF BALD HEAD ISLAND)
The Village of Bald Head Island is intervening in a request to change the ferry schedule. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Village of Bald Head Island)

BALD HEAD ISLAND – A schedule change could be coming to the Bald Head Island ferry system, and once again, the Village of Bald Head Island is intervening in a case before the North Carolina Utilities Commission.

READ MORE: Village has no claim over Bald Head Island ferry, court rules

Bald Head Transportation, which currently owns the ferry system but is in the process of selling it, has filed to reduce frequency of the main passenger ferry from 30-minute to 45-minute turnarounds. The employee ferry would remain on the same schedule. 

BHIT claims the change will help increase the system’s on-time performance and overall efficiency. 

This change would result in the ferry departing each destination point every 90 minutes rather than 60. Instead of leaving Deep Point Marina at 7 a.m., it will begin at 6 a.m. each day and end at 10:30 p.m. BHIT states it will need to eliminate two runs on average every day to accommodate the changes. 

The North Carolina Utilities Commission must sign off on the change; it regulates the ferry system, which includes the ferry, tram, barge and parking. 

On March 15, the BHI village council voted to intervene in the NCUC proceeding, citing resident opposition to the changes. 

“The council did not do this lightly but felt compelled to seek intervention to ensure that the island’s voices are heard before the commission,” a town press release noted.

Per some letters submitted to the NCUC, customers are worried about long wait times, especially in the summer heat, and overall, make it more difficult to travel to BHI, damaging the island’s ability to attract residents, businesses and tourists. The Bald Head Association, representing the island’s property owners, claimed the changes would concentrate more people onto fewer ferries and characterized the changes as out of tune with the island’s growth. 

The village is also appealing the court decision that its right-of-first refusal agreement to purchase the ferry system, which the village has been trying to do for years, is invalid. Last week, the Superior Court of Brunswick County found the agreement was void because it was never signed by the utilities commission. It further found BHI had no claim over the ferry system because, despite the agreement’s lack of validity, BHI Limited offered to sell the ferry to the village and it refused.

A change in the ferry schedule was shared in advance with the village and the Bald Head Association, but “the actual plan” to reduce ferry service was not disclosed, nor was the village consulted, the press release claims. 

To Port City Daily, village spokesperson Carin Faulkner clarified Chad Paul, CEO of Bald Head Transportation, said the system may move to a 45-minute ferry schedule to get on-time rates. 

Faulkner added BHI Mayor Peter Quinn subsequently offered on at least two occasions to arrange a public forum on the island for Paul to address the proposed changes but Paul did not follow up on the offer.

Port City Daily spoke to Paul on Tuesday, who said the village is not a “victim.”

“This is not new,” Paul said. “We have the mayor and the village mayor pro tem under oath for the utilities commission talking about the need for better on-time performance for the main ferry.” 

The NCUC states none of the major stakeholder groups that use BHIT’s system has expressed opposition to the changes. However, the village announcement claims there is overwhelming resistance to the proposal, based in part on a Bald Head Association survey.

Paul said the vast majority of the residents are going to oppose it because of the way the survey was done by the association. 

The survey asked the question: BHA encourages members to read BHIT’s filed application. Once informed, how do you feel about this proposed change? 

BHA has 650 members, and of those,196 replied; 76% of responses were in opposition to BHI’s proposal.

“We have to hold on to our rights and we have to run a publicly regulated transportation system, which is not about dealing with a couple of homeowners on Bald Head,” Paul said. “It’s about the employees that live in Brunswick County and Southport and it’s about dealing with the state regulated court that we have to do things through.” 

According to BHIT, there is not sufficient time in the current schedule to maintain its goal of punctuality 95% of the time. In 2023, it only reached 76%, and only 66% and 68% in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

The filing states that under the current 30-minute turnaround schedule, the vessels are already operating at their maximum capability. 

BHIT lists the measures it has already taken to improve efficiency, including hiring a maintenance director, limiting baggage to three items, equipping one catamaran with a higher-power engine, all in 2022, while also moving the ticketing system online in 2023.

Still, operating at capacity causes stress and wear on equipment, eliminates any elasticity to absorb even the briefest delay and accommodate passenger growth. As new homes and businesses are constructed on the island, the demand for tram service to carry passengers further and further away from the ferry terminal adds substantial travel time. According to BHIT, the furthest home from the ferry terminal requires 40 minutes to complete the round trip, not including the time necessary to load and unload baggage.

Changing the schedule will allow BHIT to improve its on-time performance and enable greater reliability and predictability of service, reduce passenger wait times and the chance of being bumped to another run, increase efficiency in the utilization of utility personnel and assets and reduce the risks of mistakes and errors adversely affecting employee morale and safety.

BHIT is asking for the schedule changes to kick in on May 1. 

“There’s no ax to grind on our end,” Paul said. “We’re not doing this to be vigilant or ugly or anything like that. We’re doing this because this is what one of the major constituents [the village] said they want it done.”


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe now and then sign up for our morning newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.

Related Articles