RALEIGH — For the second consecutive summer, the state will lease a passenger ferry to run between Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, while the boat it has on order remains unfinished in a shipyard near Swansboro.
The N.C. Department of Transportation will again rent the M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express, a catamaran-style passenger ferry, from Seastreak Marine of New Jersey. The contract hasn’t been signed yet, but the DOT expects to spend $1 million to lease the boat, the same as it did last year.
The boat will operate as the Ocracoke Express, the name also given to the $4.15 million ferry being built by US Workboats in Hubert, off the Intracoastal Waterway. That boat was supposed to be finished in April 2018, but when delays and construction problems pushed that date back the 2018 season was scrubbed.
When it became apparent the boat still wouldn’t be finished for 2019, the state decided to lease a stand-in. During a 15-week season that was cut short a few days by Hurricane Dorian, 28,604 one-way trips were sold or reserved, according to the DOT’s ferry division.
An attorney for the DOT said in September 2019 that the Ocracoke Express was 85% finished at that time. DOT spokesman Jamie Kritzer said Tuesday that some work has taken place since then but not enough to finish.
“The boat is not complete, and we’re not confident it will be complete by May,” Kritzer said.
The Ocracoke Express made three round-trips a day last summer starting in late May, but the state hasn’t set a schedule or fees for this season yet.
The DOT and US Workboats have blamed each other for the delays in construction. In a Wake County courtroom last fall, the company’s attorneys accused the state of trying to apply a higher standard of welding than was specified in the contract.
But an attorney for the state said that the company was trying to avoid some of the testing required to determine the welds are safe and that some of the tests performed at that point had uncovered “significant problems.”
That part of the dispute wasn’t settled in court. Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier dismissed the company’s breach of contract claim, but only because he said US Workboats had failed to follow a grievance process spelled out in its contract, which requires it to seek additional payments and other adjustments after the project is finished.
“NCDOT continues to work with the boat builder to complete the vessel,” Kritzer wrote in an email Tuesday, “but this is a complicated process.”
The phone number listed for US Workboats in Hubert is no longer in service, and the company didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.
The state has been assessing a penalty against US Workboats of $1,000 a day since Aug. 6, 2018, for not delivering the Ocracoke Express on time. That cost comes to more than $550,000 so far and rises each day.
The Ocracoke Express was conceived as an alternative to the car ferries that run between the two islands, after shoaling in Hatteras Inlet forced the state to take a longer route into Pamlico Sound, adding 20 minutes to a one-way trip and reducing the number of runs each day by up to 30%.
Altogether, the state expected to spend about $9.1 million to get the ferry up and running, including additional parking on Hatteras and a new floating dock and passenger shelter at Silver Lake in Ocracoke Village.