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Commuters want ferry service at Essex even during ice season (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Commuters want ferry service at Essex even during ice season (Photo: Brian Mann)

Critics say ferry closure would cause "ordeal" in Champlain Valley

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Roughly a hundred people crammed the Essex, New York, fire hall last night to protest a plan to shut down ferry service this winter.

The Lake Champlain Transportation company says it will suspend crossings from Essex to Charlotte, Vermont, when the lake begins to ice over.

Local residents from New York and Vermont blasted that decision.

As Brian Mann reports, critics say the ferry is crucial for the region's economy and for public safety.

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"Everyone remembers that we had a huge crisis in the Champlain Valley last year, when the Crown Point bridge was condemned as unsafe and then demolished in late December.

Without the bridge, hundreds of people on both sides of the lake were cut off, from schools, jobs, medical care.

The Lake Champlain Transportation company pitched in, working with the states of New York and Vermont to open a temporary crossing at Crown Point which opened last February.

What made fewer headlines is that Lake Champlain Transportation then made a second decision last winter, abruptly shutting down its winter service at a different crossing – between the towns of Essex and Charlotte, Vermont.

Yana Tamlin from Shelburne works in Willsboro.  She told a packed crowd last night in Essex that the decision by the company made her life hell.

"It was our turn to go through that ordeal," she said. "And for me it was two hours one way, four hours a day that I spent in the car."

Ferry spokeswoman and operations manager Heather Stewart says the Essex-Charlotte run be suspended for part of the winter again this year.

 "We have a limited number of vessels and we are trying to provide the best possible service to as many people as possible," she said.

That decision infuriated residents from both sides of the lake.  Person after person testified that without the ferry their jobs, their healthcare would be disrupted.

 Andy Buchanan, who lives here in Essex, organized last night’s meeting.

"This is our bridge.  We rely on it, we need it and we want it to stay open," he said.

"We invited the company to hear your testimony, to hear your reasons why this should be done.  They’ve unfortunately declined to attend," Buchanan added.

Last night’s meeting was attended by people from both sides of the lake.  Scott McIntyre lives in Burlington but works in Willsboro.

"My job is here.  On a day-to-day basis, I’m relied upon by the people I work for to show up at my job in Willsboro.  If the Lake Champlain ferry closes down in  winter time, I can’t do that," he said.

Linda Harvey lives on the New York side of the lake, but works at Fletcher Allen hospital in Burlington.  SHe says this decision affects public safety in New York.

"There is no life flight over there," she pointed out. "The only way to get them to Fletcher Allen is by ambulance."

Without the ferry, Harvey says, drive times are increased by hours. 

Ben Gillilland, a farmer in Willsboro, says he needs the ferry to get his cattle to the slaughterhouse in Vermont.

"We take our cattle to Ferrisburgh.  It's very important to us from an economic point of view that that ferry stay up for businessmen to get back and forth."

News that the ferry will close again this winter comes at the same time that Lake Champlain Transportation was announcing that it had just acquired a brand new ferry that has ice-breaking capabilities.

But Heather Stewart says that vessel won’t be used on the Essex-Charlotte run

"We're not able to do that," she said.  "What that ferry needs to be used as is a fill-in, because we have many engine rebuilds."

A common refrain last night was the idea that the ferry company operates with a monopoly and receives significant revenue and support directly from the state of New York – especially for its work at Crown Point. 

Corey Gillilland from Willsboro, say that means Lake Champlain Transportation should be regulated.  

"I've lived in quite a few states and in every state ferry was considered just like the railroad and the highways.  It was regulated by the state."

Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, from Willsboro, said she would look into the idea of additional government oversight when she goes back to Albany.

"That is one thing that...I will commit to tonight.  That will part of the question that we ask," Sayward said.

Another big concern raised last night is that the ferry company is suspending service not because of ice conditions, but because traffic in the winter is too light to be profitable.

 Sally Johnson lives in Shelburne, Vermont

"I am very bitter about the concept of private profit and public expense," she said.  "This I don't like."

Officials with Lake Champlain Transportation says ice and equipment are driving the company’s decision.  But they acknowledged that traffic in the winter is light – with roughly a tenth as many cars crossing from Essex compared with the crossing at Crown Point. 

A delegation of commuters and lawmakers from both sides of the lake plans to meet with the ferry company in the next two weeks.

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