Ferry expected this afternoon

The U.S. Transportation secretary will check in on final preparations for free ferry service across the Bay of St. Louis, slated to start Wednesday.

Mary Peters should get to see the boat, which was expected to leave Bayou La Batre, Ala., Monday at midnight for the commute to its new 1.6-mile route and the Mississippi Department of Transportation-constructed landing sites this afternoon.

Workers at a shipyard across the state line were finishing painting the ship, dubbed the Marissa Mae Nicole after three children of staff members of Hornblower Marine Services, the ferry company that will operate the service.

"Everything was going fine," said Greg Brown, vice president of operations for Hornblower.

The Coast Guard had been conducting inspections in the shipyard and another inspector will visit today, one day before the service starts.

Peters will take the tour with U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, Mississippi Department of Transportation Executive Director Butch Brown and Federal Highway Administration Division Administrator Andy Hughes.

MDOT was placing wooden pilings that the ferry will tie up to.

"Everything else is pretty much done," said MDOT engineer David Seyfarth.

The ferry contract is estimated to be worth $5 million for its seven-month duration. Service will end when two lanes of the new U.S. 90 bridge of the bay are complete.

Granite Archer Western has a May 16 deadline to meet that milestone.

The request for proposals sketched out a service that would operate from 6:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., although the schedule for Wednesday's first day has not been released.

"Twelve hours is the magic number," Brown said. "It's the amount of time one crew can operate a vessel."

MDOT also asked for two vessels capable of carrying 35 cars to run on a 45-minute schedule. That would give a total daily capacity of 1,120 vehicles.

The Marissa Mae Nicole can carry only 22 to 25 cars, Brown said, and will be a single ferry. He said the schedule is still untested but they hope to be able to get the departures down to 30 minutes, which would allow the boat to carry a maximum of 600 cars.

By comparison, the Gulf Regional Planning Commission's last traffic count on the U.S. 90 bridge in 2005 showed that 19,000 cars used it daily.