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Council faces Lower Portland Ferry charging dilemma as fresh $500,000 annual bill looms

Aug 8, 2023

Hawkesbury City Council and Hills Council will have to make a decision by next July, whether to start charging for use of the Lower Portland Ferry, or whether they will make their ratepayers pay an extra combined $500,000 a year when state funding runs out.

Ratepayers were also advised last month that the regular maintenance to the ferry, which will occur in coming months, will cost $500,000, according to a list of major projects included in the latest rates notice sent by HCC. The last maintenance that ran over in 2019 cost $558,000.

In its 2019 submission to the state government to secure funding for the ferry, the two councils said it cost $1.04 million a year to run the ferry including scheduled maintenance and a $1.25 million replacement cost “in 12 years” (2031). The cost to Hawkesbury ratepayers of paying the ferry’s operation TONO was listed as $487,594 in the 2021/2022 HCC Annual Report. The Hills Council has previously said it is contributing $260,000 each year towards the running of the ferry which HCC manages. But the four year, $500,000 deal with the NSW government ends 30 June, 2024.

This leaves the councils with a dilemma of how to fund the extra costs of about $500,000 a year.

Questions remain over how the Lower Portland Ferry will be funded in the future.

With the exception of Lower Portland, all ferries operated by local councils have a service charge for usage. Transport for NSW operates 12 vehicle ferries at nine locations across NSW and there are at least an additional six ferry services operated by local councils and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. 

The state government appears unlikely to want to take over the operation of the ferry, despite pleas by Hawkesbury Mayor Sarah McMahon last week. Transport for NSW is working to try and provide a loan vehicle while the ferry is pulled out of the water for its scheduled maintenance in coming months. A tender for the maintenance was not issued until July 25.

A last minute deal saw the ferry operator TONO, last week agree to reverse its decision to cease operating the ferry – its advice to HCC was on July 25 –  and continue it until Sept. 2024, when Council elections are due. It is also unclear if TONO will be receiving extra payments to keep the ferry running between now and next September.

Transport for NSW sources said that the idea behind the one-off funding was so the two councils would transition the loss-making service in some way during the term of the funding.

“Transport for NSW will work with Hawkesbury Council to explore options to ensure that the Lower Portland Ferry remains in operation for the community. This includes current discussions around assisting Hawkesbury Council with a loan vessel during upcoming key maintenance work,” a spokesman for Transport for NSW told The Hawkesbury Post.

“Transport for NSW provided Hawkesbury City Council with a one-off four year funding contribution of $500,000 towards running the Lower Portland. That funding runs until June 2024.

In the Hawkesbury, Transport for NSW operates the Sackville, Wisemans Ferry and Webb Creek vehicle ferries 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Lower Portland ferry has a significantly lower patronage and Hawkesbury City Council operates this 5am to midnight, seven days a week.”

 

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