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Contract Dispute Could Disrupt Cave-In-Rock Ferry Service

A contract with the operator of the Cave-in-Rock Ferry on the Ohio River is due to lapse after June 30, and its continued operation remains uncertain.

Keith Todd, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s District 1 office, said conversations continue between state officials and Lonnie Lewis, the ferry’s operator since 1994. It is possible the ferry could continue to operate under the old contract for a few months, he said, but no final decision between the parties has been communicated.

Lonnie Lewis Inc., doing business as Cave in Rock Ferry Company, operates the ferry at Ohio River Mile 881 as an independent contractor with joint funding from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and the Illinois Department of Transportation through a ferry authority. Each state normally pays for half the funding.

The Cave-in-Rock Ferry connects Ky. 91 in Crittenden County, Ky., with Ill. 1 in Hardin County, Ill. It normally operates from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, carrying about 500 vehicles a day across the river. Without the ferry, commuters would face a 69-mile, 90-minute detour via the Ky. 56/Ill. 13 Shawneetown Bridge, according to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Additionally, the ferry serves as a tourist attraction, connecting the Amish community on the Kentucky side with the Shawnee National Forest and nearby Cave-in-Rock State Park on the Illinois side. Farmers with operations on both sides of the river also use the ferry crossing for their tractors and other agricultural equipment.

Documents provided by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet following an open-records request showed Kenucky and Illinois transportation offices had been funding the ferry at the rate of $804,000 annually for the two year-period leading up to June 30, 2018, when the contract was last renegotiated.

After a period of a few months without a contract, former Kentucky transportation leadership agreed in fall 2018 to a contract of $1.2 million a year for the next two years with the understanding that an audit of Lewis’ operation would determine operational costs and be used to determine future funding agreements.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s funding plan for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, calls for the state to pay $464,300 each year for the next two years. If matched by Illinois, that would mean a total contract of $928,600 annually.

Lewis communicated to the state via his attorney earlier this month that the amount is not enough to for him to continue the ferry operation. He declined to speak to The Waterways Journal about the ongoing contract dispute. Records show he has asked for $1,299,984 for fiscal year 2021 and $1,378,006 for fiscal year 2022, which incorporates a yearly 6 percent cost-of-living adjustment, with half each from Kentucky and Illinois.

—Photo by Keith Todd/Kentucky Transportation Cabinet The Cave-in-Rock Ferry carries roughly 500 vehicles a day between Crittenden County, Ky., and Hardin County, Ill.
—Photo by Keith Todd/Kentucky Transportation Cabinet
The Cave-in-Rock Ferry carries roughly 500 vehicles a day between Crittenden County, Ky., and Hardin County, Ill.

Lewis told the local newspaper, The Crittenden Press, that he is asking for the funding increase because of equipment costs and because he wants to improve the spare ferry and tugboat.

“If something goes wrong, I want to have reliable equipment as backup,” Lewis told the newspaper.

Kentucky transportation officials initially agreed to a compromise that would have funded the ferry at the rate of $1 million annually for its part, brokered in part by Crittenden County Judge Executive Perry Newcom. That offer was rejected, however. In turn, Kentucky officials have indicated increasing the amount of ferry funding beyond that is not feasible, in part due to delays and suspensions of road plan spending due to the state’s cost to respond to the COVID-19 virus.