Friday, June 22, 2018

Ferry facing uncertain future amid funding crisis

Unless there’s an increase in funding, some changes are inevitable for the Cave in Rock Ferry.

Ferry franchise owner Lonnie Lewis of Cave in Rock says that after almost 24 years of operating the service across the Ohio River, he’s losing money and cannot continue under the current contract, which he is trying to renegotiate.

Lewis is meeting via teleconference with Kentucky Department of Transportation officials and area leaders Friday afternoon. There will be another meeting with transportation officials and the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday in Paducah.

Lewis said the agreement that keeps the ferry going was renewed recently without an opportunity for him to discuss the financial climate that is currently making his ferry business a losing proposition. Kentucky and Illinois share the expense of operating the ferry, but Kentucky administers the financial records and payments. Each state kicks in about $400,000 a year to keep the ferry going 16 hours a day, 365 days a year, barring high water, wind or other issues that prompt its occasional, temporary closing.

Lewis said new federal mandates coming in July and higher operating expenses are pushing his costs beyond revenue. One new federal regulation will require two deckhands on the rig at all times. Only one has been required since the ferry began operating. But that changes next month.

Hours ahead of Friday’s teleconference, Lewis told The Crittenden Press that the ferry will shut down July 1 if additional funding is not made available. He said closing it, at least temporarily, is necessary to make changes and adapt the way it’s operated. Lewis said it would reopen, but didn’t say exactly when. He did say it would not operate under the same hours. Most likely, the service will be limited to just 10 hours a day, and it might be closed on holidays.

Lewis said Illinois is on board with additional funding, but he’s not sure what Kentucky plans to do.

Keith Todd, spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Highways, said the state does not have an emergency fund per se to increase the ferry’s annual revenue. He said money would have to be diverted from other state sources until next year when the legislature could consider bumping up the ferry’s budget appropriation.

There is very little or no chance that a fee will be charged for riding the ferry, although a toll was required for decades until Lewis purchased the ferry company in 1994 from former operator Tom Patton. Lewis said Illinois has a provision in its agreement that prohibits fees for service because Illinois provides other free ferries across the state. Allowing Cave in Rock Ferry to charge would be discriminatory against citizens of southern Illinois, Lewis explains.

Lewis owns legal rights to operate the service. The franchise was originally issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia, well before Kentucky became a state, Lewis said. Lewis also owns the real estate surrounding the ferry landing on the Kentucky side of the river and the property at the end of Ky. 91 which stops at the river bank.