In My Opinion

November 28, 2010

IN MY OPINION: All-winter Essex Ferry service critical

It is unfortunate that your recent editorial "Numbers rule ferry routes" attempted to reduce the issue of keeping the Essex Ferry running this winter to an oversimplified math equation: Lake Champlain Transportation (LCT) is only running two "icebreaking" ferries, so Essex-Charlotte — the crossing with the fewest cars — should be terminated for the second year in a row.

In fact, according to its own website, LCT has four ferries, soon to be joined by a fifth (the much publicized Raymond J. Pecor, Jr.), that have "a combination of stainless steel propellers, reinforced hulls and heavy gears that enable them to navigate winter ice on the Lake." And a sixth ferry, the Grand Isle, has served admirably as a winter boat on the Essex-Charlotte crossing in the past.

We recognize that the Essex-Charlotte crossing might be the least profitable route for LCT during the winter months, especially while the Crown Point Bridge is being replaced and the company is receiving a generous state subsidy to provide service there.

We recognize that LCT is a private business and needs to pay attention to its bottom line.

And we recognize that it may prove challenging for LCT to change course at such a late date, especially as the company appears to have deliberately scheduled long-delayed ferry maintenance work for the winter months.

But we urge LCT to reconsider its plans and to continue ferry service on all three crossings this winter.

What often gets lost in this debate is that, while LCT is a private company, it is engaged every day in providing a vital public service. The ferry is our "bridge," and it is just as important to us in central Essex County, New York and Chittenden and Addison counties in Vermont as the Champlain Bridge is to our southern neighbors. With more than 100 miles between the remaining bridges, this private company now has a monopoly on crossing the lake in the winter.

LCT is heavily subsidized by our tax dollars, receiving $2.5 million in federal funds for dock improvements up north, over $500,000 for engine rebuilds and now millions more in state funding for cars crossing at Crown Point. Despite these massive infusions of taxpayer funds, there is no government oversight of this monopoly's actions.

We all understand that we need transportation systems to be predictable and reliable. The people most directly affected by LCT's decision are some of its most valuable repeat customers, who will face long drives on icy roads to reach the other crossings.

But also of real concern to our elected officials is the harmful impact that unreliable and sporadic ferry service at our "bridge" has on family and health-care networks, businesses, emergency services, educational institutions and local economies on both sides of the lake.

Quite simply, winter closure of the Essex-Charlotte ferry will not only hurt the very commuters and businesses who pay for LCT's operations, it will have a ripple effect and damage a much larger population in Vermont and New York whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly upon year-round ferry service.

For LCT to pull the plug on the Essex—Charlotte crossing without making a serious effort to leverage its deep resources of skills, experience and, yes, maybe even cash, to explore every avenue to service all three crossings is short-sighted, callous and irresponsible. LCT acts as if it can start and stop services as it alone sees fit, knowing that the state will pick up the ferry fees for those Essex-Charlotte customers who drive south on slippery and winding secondary roads, adding to the even longer backups endured by the already stressed drivers at Crown Point on their morning and evening commutes.

The company fails to recognize that obligations to the public are linked to providing essential public services; obligations that increase sharply when profiting from government funds. If the LCT refuses to take its public obligations seriously, then we need to lobby aggressively for construction of a bridge at Cumberland Head and state/federal mandated year-round ferry service between Essex and Charlotte.

We challenge LCT to act like the capable, responsible and civic-minded company that it claims to be and to do the right thing, even though it might be a stretch. To build its reputation for reliability, integrity, safety and committed service at all its crossings rather than leaving a wake of disruption and disappointment. To provide year-round service to the customers and businesses in an important but under-serviced rural area. To behave as a private but public-spirited company, one which builds communities and local economies.

We hope that LCT can and will rise to this challenge.

Mac MacDevitt and Andy Buchanan are members of "The Ferry is Our Bridge"

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