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Coast marks a Katrina milestone with launch of ferry service

Mississippi’s battered Gulf Coast marks a milestone in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina this week with the launch of a free ferry service that temporarily replaces one of the bridges destroyed by last year’s storm.

The federally funded ferry service, set to start Wednesday, could carry more than 1,000 cars a day on a 1.6-mile route across the Bay of St. Louis in full operation.

An estimated 19,000 cars each day drove over the U.S. 90 bridge between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian before Katrina washed it away. After the hurricane, motorists accustomed to a short drive over the bridge have endured a long detour around the bay.

A new bridge over the Bay of St. Louis is under construction. The ferry service, which will cost roughly $5 million, is expected to end in May when the first two lanes of the new bridge are scheduled to open.

One ferry will be operating this week. A second ferry will be added if needed, officials said. The first ferry can carry between 22 and 28 vehicles at a time. One-way trips across the bay are scheduled every 45 minutes, with around 16 crossings a day.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters visited the coast Tuesday to ride the ferry and view the progress of the bridge construction.

“It’s going to allow people less time driving and more time with their families,” she said of the ferry service.

The ferry may end up saving motorists more gas money than commute time, said Larry “Butch” Brown, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation.

“The convenience and the novelty of it are both important to the operation of the ferry,” he added. “I think it’s going to become more of a unique adventure than something that’s critical in nature.”

Also under construction along coastal U.S. 90 is a new bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs. Brown said two lanes of that bridge are on pace to open in November 2007, two weeks ahead of schedule.

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose home in Bay St. Louis was demolished by Katrina, called the launch of the ferry service a “good start” for weary commuters. However, Taylor said a lack of funding is slowing the pace of other public works projects, such as repairing roads and sewer systems.

“Who’s going to pay for it?” he asked, noting that the storm left most coastal cities struggling with revenue shortages. “They’re afraid to go out and make huge commitments if they don’t know where the money is coming from.”