More than 100 supporters of the Essex-Charlotte Ferry crossing whooped up support Wednesday night for keeping the ferry running this winter.
The rally in the Essex fire station brought out dozens of speakers who said they needed the Essex Ferry for employment, medical care or education.
Whether that will affect ferry operator Lake Champlain Transportation is unknown. No one from the Vermont-based company attended the rally; a seat at the head table marked "LCT" sat empty during the forum.
The event was co-organized by Andy Buchanan of Essex, who said the Essex Ferry crossing is a link they have come to rely on.
"It became painfully obvious what the company's plans were when their public statement says they will run as long as ice conditions permit. They are setting up the conditions to not run."
The company had an icebreaker ferry at Essex but moved it to the Crown Point-Addison, Vt., run when temporary ferry service began there in January. That ferry is running free, paid for by the states, until a new bridge is built at Crown Point.
Because that run had no icebreaker, the Essex Ferry stopped for about two months last winter because of conditions between Essex and Charlotte, Vt.
Lake Champlain Transportation Operations Manager Heather Stewart said before the rally that they don't have an extra icebreaker for Essex.
"Our plan is to provide the best possible service to as many people as possible. We have a limited number of vessels. We will run the Gov. Aiken at the Charlotte crossing as long as conditions permit."
It comes down to serving the most people, she said.
"The (Essex) Charlotte crossing has 150 cars a day during the winter. The Crown Point crossing will be more than 1,500 cars per day this winter."
The company just acquired a new icebreaker ferry, the Raymond C. Pecor Jr., but that vessel will be used at the Cumberland Head-Grand Isle, Vt., crossing because of the high volume of traffic there.
Robin Ulmer, like many at the forum, said her family uses the Essex Ferry to access Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
"The ferry service is critical for me and my husband. He needs to go for chemotherapy every week."
Dairy farmer John Gaulin said he must get to agricultural facilities in Ferrisburg, Vt.
"We take our cattle to Vermont. It's very important to us from an economic point of view that the ferry remain open."
Several speakers at the meeting said that even though Lake Champlain Transportation is a private business, it is providing public transportation and must be regulated somehow.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward (R-Willsboro), who was chairing the session, said she will investigate what agencies regulate ferries.
Essex Supervisor Sharon Boisen and Vermont House Legislator Diane Lanpher were also at the meeting. Newly appointed Willsboro Supervisor Edward Hatch, who had just been sworn in, also attended.
Boisen said Lake Champlain Transportation owner Ray Pecor has agreed to meet with her and a small group of Essex area residents within the next few weeks to discuss winter ferry service.
"The need for this ferry is far greater than a simple numerical one," Buchanan said. "This is our 'bridge.' We rely on it. We need it."
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