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Ravell Call, Deseret News
A ferry named the John Atlantic Burr — which is operated by the Utah Department of Transportation — arrives at Bullfrog Marina to unload vehicles and passengers who crossed from Halls Crossing on the other side of Lake Powell.

The Utah Department of Transportation maintains 5,840 total miles of road in Utah, including 971 miles of interstate highways. It also maintains a one-ship navy.

What? A ship in the desert? Yes. UDOT operates a ferry service across 3.1 miles of open water between Bullfrog Marina and Hall's Crossing on Lake Powell.

A wet, green state like Washington has dozens anddozens of ferries, but it seems unusual for the nation's second-driest weather state to have one.

The ferry, an extension of state Route 276, operates daily, weather permitting, except Christmas and New Year's Day. A combination of Lake Powell/Colorado River water in Glen Canyon makes a ferry crossing the most feasible way to connect highways in the remote area.

The ferry, marking its 25thyear of operation, has a vehicle capacity of 22 cars or any combination of cars, trucks, buses or other equipment that can fit on the deck. Passenger capacity is 150 for an approximately 25-minute ride.

The ferry saves about an hour in travel time for people headed to Halls Crossing, Bullfrog Marina and other areas. The only alternative route in the area is about 70 miles longer and means driving through White Canyon and Fry Canyon.

A ride on the ferry is a scenic opportunity of its own, offering great views of Lake Powell and the surrounding area.

The service is not cheap. In 2005, it cost UDOT about $363,000 to operate the ferry, including a $100,000 charge to renew its license with the U.S. Coast Guard. UDOT almost canceled service in 2005, but increased the fees and reduced free rides for some groups.

When it was announced the ferry might close, people throughout the western United States sent UDOT e-mails requesting that it remain open. The Kane County Office of Tourism argued closure would negatively impact tourism, travel and emergency services in the area.

"UDOT has not been (recently) talking of downsizing or discontinuing the ferry service," said Kevin Kitchen, UDOT Region 4 spokesman, adding a rate increase is unlikely this year.

Ridership on the ferry hit an all-time high of 11,435 vehicles and 23,4833 passengers in 2006. Last year's ridership totals are still being compiled.

Besides tourists, area employees also regularly take the ferry. Some school buses use it to transport schoolchildren each day.

The ferry is an important link between two of Utah's most remote and rural counties — Kane and San Juan.

Regarding the unique nature of operating a ferry in a desert, Kitchen said among a flurry of local inquiries about snow removal, receiving a request for employment information on the ferry last month from a Coast Guard captain in New York seemed out of place.

Reservations on the ferry are not accepted. It is first-come, first-served. Fees are $5 for foot passengers and $10 for motorcycles. For most cars, the fee is $20 and goes up $1.25 for each foot of vehicle length beyond 20 feet. The schedule varies depending on the season.

"Operations are normally scaled back a bit in winter due to decreased demand and maintenance," Kitchen said.

There are 11 crossings offered during the summer months between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and just four in the winter at 8 a.m., 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Inclement weather may shut down ferry service at any time.

Call 1-435-684-3088 for current schedule information, or go to udot.utah.gov and search for "ferry."

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com