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The Lake Powell ferry needs $3.24 million for a new engine and extended ramps to handle low water levels to remain afloat in the future and officials are not sure where to find the money.
The Utah Transportation Commission heard that report during a meeting Friday in Moab, where San Juan County officials pledged to chip in because of the importance to tourism of the ferry that crosses four miles between Hall's Crossing and Bullfrog.
Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said in an interview that "the boat is getting old. The engine manufacturer no longer makes parts for the engine," and UDOT has resorted to manufacturing needed parts instead of buying them.
"We're really struggling keeping that one boat operating. We had a lot of down time last year." Braceras said UDOT decided that "if we're going to operate a ferry system, let's operate one that actually provides service." So UDOT officials studied what it would take, and reported that to the commission on Friday.
Officials estimated that it would take about $1 million to buy and install a new engine and drive train in the Charles Hall ferry.
Other problems come from what they say has become a "new normal" for lower lake levels, where old ramps are no longer sufficient and temporary ramps are viewed as unsafe because they are near house boat ramps, and require tricky maneuvering by the ferry.
Also, UDOT would like to operate the ferry beyond the normal summer-only season, saying it finds that the boat and its engine operate better if kept in constant service. San Juan County officials also say that would help tourism and other industries. But that also means operating in lower water levels.
Extending the Bullfrog ramp would cost $1.7 million, UDOT estimates, and the price tag for the Hall's Crossing ramp would be $540,000.
How to come up with that money is unclear. The commission asked UDOT to seek possible federal grants as it looks for ways to continue operation.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams said his county is willing to be a partner to keep the ferry operating and in extending the ferry's schedule.
"We support this proposal 110 percent," he said. "We're passionate about this ferry…. People expect it to be open when they come here from all over the world."
UDOT said it plans to offer daily service this year between May 16 and Oct. 2. It proposes Friday to Sunday service between April 7 and May 15, and again between Oct. 7 and Nov. 27.
The schedule calls for four departures daily from Hall's Crossing and Bullfrog. Costs are $25 per passenger vehicle, $15 for motorcycles and $10 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Braceras said about a decade ago, UDOT considered closing the ferry system to save money but found it was important to local industries, the National Park Service, tourists and others. So it continued the service, but sold one of two ferries then operating to cut costs.
Adams said while the ferry requires subsidies, "What road does make money?" He said he views the ferry as a "water road" that is essential to the local economy.