RIO VISTA -- A roadside sign en route to one of Rio Vista's ferries warns drivers that they might be out of luck that day if they're hoping to get to the other side of Cache Slough in a hurry.

Another "Ferry Closed" notice at the launch site appears to confirm the inconvenience, but a mechanic cheerfully announces that the vessel will be back in service shortly once he finishes up a maintenance job on the hydraulics system.

When the mechanical barrier goes up about 15 minutes later, the opportunity presents itself to ask a ferry employee whether the work was routine.

He shakes his head.

"Abnormal pressure," he said.

But the mechanical difficulties that so often took the Real McCoy II out of commission during its first year on the Delta are far less frequent these days.

Former Rio Vista Mayor Jan Vick remembers when breakdowns were a favorite topic of conversation around town but says that's in the past.

So does Caltrans, which operates the ferry because it's considered an extension of Highway 84.

"It's been very dependable since 2011 when you consider it's 24/7 service," said agency spokesman Robert Haus. "The only times it's been down is for regular maintenance or for minor wear and tear."

The Real McCoy II began shuttling vehicles between Rio Vista and the west side of Ryer Island in February 2011, a $4.3 million replacement for its namesake that had become too costly to keep afloat after providing around-the-clock transportation since 1946.


Advertisement

The ferry is one of two that provide free passage to and from the island, a Delta farming community of about 400.

Other area residents use it on their commute to Sacramento because there's less traffic on Highway 84 than the major routes Highway 80 and Interstate 5.

"It's a shortcut for everybody," said Rio Vista resident Lee Williams, a mobile mechanic who not only has worked on the ferry but takes it when going on a bike ride or attending a baseball game in Sacramento.

And on the occasions that the Rio Vista Bridge is closed -- the drawbridge might be up as long as 30 minutes to allow commercial vessels through -- the Real McCoy II is one way that eastward-bound drivers still can get across the river.

Ryer Island also has a smaller, cable-drawn ferry on its east side and a two-lane bridge to the north, but depending on where drivers are headed, the Real McCoy II can be the most convenient option.

And so users were frustrated when the new ferry wasn't in use, which was a common occurrence during its first year on the water.

Ryer Island resident Claudia Oblea, 18, recalls having to get up an hour earlier to catch the school bus because, unable to use the ferry, it had to take a different approach and she was one of the first pickups on its new route.

As of July 22, Caltrans had suspended service 96 times since the ferry began operating, and only 19 of those were for routine maintenance, according to agency records.

One of those episodes was a 5½-month period in 2011-12 to fix the hydraulic system during which the Real McCoy II sometimes was off-limits even to emergency vehicles; its first year of operation, the ferry was down 53 percent of the time.

By contrast, the Real McCoy I was out of commission 6 percent of the time the year before it was sold.

Then again, that vessel had a less complex design, Haus noted.

By fall 2011, Caltrans realized that there was no quick fix for the ferry's troubles, so it brought in the boat builder along with the manufacturer of its malfunctioning propulsion system to get to the root of the problem, Haus said.

The ferry was still under warranty, so the state didn't incur any repair bills, he said.

Since the Real McCoy II was returned to service in February 2012, there's been a significant improvement, Haus said, noting that so far this year it's been out of service 9 percent of the time.

In the cases that the ferry has broken down, it has been the result of normal wear such as a faulty starter motor and a leaking oil line, he said.

Caltrans workers take advantage of those times to change the engine oil, obviating the need to suspend ferry service at other times -- typically twice a month -- for this kind of routine maintenance, Haus said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Reach her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.

---