Downtime an issue for historic Woodland Ferry

By Ronald MacArthur

The Woodland Ferry has been a landmark in the western Sussex area for generations. The current ferry has been plying the waters of the Nanticoke River for the past 40 years. But during the past few years, the actual time spent “plying” has been getting less and less. According to DelDOT documents obtained by The Star newspapers, the ferry was out of service 40 percent of the time during 2003. Nearly half of the downtime, just about 20 percent, was due to mechanical problems while the remaining time was due to weather-related problems, according to Joseph Wright, South District Engineer. The best month of the year was April when the ferry was down 20 percent of its total operational hours and the worst month was August when it was down more than 60 percent of the time (173.5 hours). According to Bill Royal, a Woodland resident who is a former president of the Woodland Ferry Association, no one feels that the 40 percent total is acceptable. Royal wrote a letter to the Department of Transportation penning his dissatisfaction with the operation of the historic ferry. Royal lives adjacent to the ferry in the old Woodland store. Royal, who is echoing the thoughts of many who use the ferry on a regular basis, uses the word “frustrated” when he talks about the current ferry situation. In his response to Royal, Wright wrote: “As you are well aware the Woodland Ferry is over 40 years old. With the daily use of this vessel and the associated wear and tear, it should not be totally unexpected that it will suffer considerable mechanical breakdowns. Our mechanics spend a significant portion of their time trying to keep the ferry in operation.
“Until such time as the ferry is replaced with a newer vessel (which is not planned), I’m afraid that we will continue to experience the same type of mechanical problems that prompted your letter.” Royal said that a more acceptable number would have to be around 20-25 percent of downtime due to extreme low and high tides. Because of the design of the ramps, vehicles drag their bottoms at extreme tides forcing the ferry to shut down. He added that the Ferry Association has offered a new design to improve the ramps so that vehicles could enter and exit the ferry during any tide, which could impact the downtime significantly. “But it would be expensive to do that,” he said. Royal said that the ferry is an important part of the area’s history as well as an important transportation route. “The ferry is probably the most unique tourism attraction the state has,” Royal said. “I hate to see it get a bad name, but it has really gone down hill over the past few years. “It is also an important transportation route and the state would dare not shut down a major bridge or road,” he added. Royal acknowledges that no one has come out and actually used the phrase “shut down” when talking about the future of the Woodland Ferry, but that if the current trend of downtime continues, there may be no other choice. Royal noted that the Woodland Ferry Association, besides sponsoring the successful Woodland Ferry Festival each September, provides funds to support the ferry. He estimated that the association has provided $75,000 to $100,000 in funds for items as varied as motors for the cable winch to cables to signs to furnishing the renovated ferry house. Royal feels that it is time for state transportation officials, concerned citizens, and area elected officials to meet and discuss the future of the ferry.

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