Lake Powell ferry crash postpones opening
Accident • Official cites “an inexperienced crew and wind as contributing factors.”
Published: April 28, 2014 10:57PM
Updated: April 28, 2014 11:00PM
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| Tribune file photo House boats at Bullfrog Marina on Lake Powell.

A boat crash in the desert will throw a wrench into southern Utah highway traffic and tourism for several months.

The Lake Powell ferry between the Bullfrog and Halls Crossing marinas will not begin operations until July 1 or later this year — instead of the planned May 15 — because of an accident during spring testing.

The ferry, owned by the Utah Department of Transportation but operated by concessionaire Aramark, connects northern and southern portions of State Road 276 in scenic Garfield, Kane and San Juan counties.

On March 12, in a test run amid work on generators, the ferry ran aground and into a canyon wall, UDOT spokesman Kevin Kitchen said Monday. He said the captain’s report “cites an inexperienced crew and wind as contributing factors.”

Aramark spokesman David Freireich said, “The captain at the helm of the ferry when it encountered mechanical issues is actually quite experienced, and his actions prevented further damage to the ferry.”

Still, Kitchen said, “As a result, all of the propellers and outdrives were damaged. That’s four propellers and two outdrives.”

Repairs will take months, in part, because the manufacturer of the outdrives — part of the steering and propulsion system that is outside the hull — has gone out of business. So Aramark and the state have a Utah business conducting an international search for replacement parts.

“Any parts they are not able to locate,” Kitchen said, “they will manufacture.”

Once repairs are made, Rolls-Royce, the manufacturer of the engine, has to come in and calibrate gauges on the ferry, Kitchen said.

After that, the craft must pass a U.S. Coast Guard inspection before operations begin. So the July 1 opening date is tentative.

Damage is estimated at about $150,000, Kitchen said. The state contract requires Aramark to carry insurance for accidents, and that is expected to cover the costs.

Kitchen said the ferry ridership averages 11,000 to 14,000 people annually. The state subsidizes its operations beyond what fares raise by about $100,000 a year, but it was $118,000 last year, Kitchen said. That does not include repair costs annually, which are more.

Kitchen said county and tourism officials view the subsidy as an important contribution to help attract tourism to the area.

The ferry runs seasonally, roughly between Memorial and Labor days, although dates vary year to year. Kitchen said the ferry needs the lake level to be at a minimum elevation of 3,580 feet to operate, which usually occurs after spring runoff.

ldavidson@sltrib.com