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Poor Planning, Mismanagement Blamed For Docked Ferry Project

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MANNS HARBOR, N.C. — A failed ferryboat project along the Outer Banks that has cost state taxpayers nearly $1 million has raised questions of government waste, mismanagement and even criminal wrongdoing.

Separated by miles of sound, Currituck County leaders argued a small passenger ferry to and from the town of Corolla would cut travel time for Outer Banks children needing to get to mainland schools.

Senate President Pro-Tem Marc Basnight argues that with multimillion-dollar homes and tourism consuming the Outer Banks, new transportation links are critical.

"I had a lot to do with trying a build a bridge," said Basnight. "And then, a ferry."

Basnight pushed the ferryboat and more than $800,000 through the North Carolina General Assembly. Not long afterward, however, the plan ran aground with problems.

"I have to believe people in Raleigh are shaking their heads as to the amount of money spent on a totally ill-conceived concept," said Bob Collins, of Currituck Citizens for Better Government, which questions how taxpayers' money was ever spent without the proper planning.

First, the North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division had a boat built that was not considered safe enough to travel the local sound along the northern Outer Banks. The Coast Guard pulled certification.

Next, a part of the wind-driven sound is often too shallow and environmentally sensitive for large-boat travel. Lacking proper permits, though, DOT workers went ahead and dredged a channel, which was a federal crime.

"The powerful developers, the people who have political clout, have been getting away with murder," said Jan DeBlieu, of the environmental group North Carolina Coastal Federation, which reported the violation.

Federal charges followed, and four DOT workers pleaded guilty. A federal grand jury indicted the State Ferry Division's then-director, Jerry Gaskill, for conspiracy and cover-up. Gaskill was suspended and later resigned. The case against him is still pending.

Although Basnight admits he pulled strings to get the ferry, he denies doing anything illegal.

"I haven't heard from anybody, nor did I have any conversation with anyone about doing the dredging," Basnight said.

And adding to the embarrassment of the entire project, if the ferry were running today, there would be only be one student to ride it.

Currituck leaders say they still want the boat for residents and tourists, and have marked the site for a new Corolla Pier if they can ever get past all the mistakes.

"We have been victimized by this as much as anybody else, and we still have the need, and it's unmet," said Currituck County Manager Dan Scanlon.

The illegal dredging has been filled back in and the DOT has put the entire project on hold.

"You've got to say this was ill-conceived, poorly planned," Collins said. "We now have $1 million spent on a ferry that's going nowhere."