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After decades of service transporting New York City commuters, 50 subway cars traveled to new depths Tuesday when they entered the Atlantic Ocean off Hilton Head Island to become part of an artificial reef.'
The cars left behind only a trace of dust and the echo of thunder as they were pushed off the barge that had taken them to sea.'
"Once they go into the water, after a few months you start to see growth," said Rob Martore, manager of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' artificial reef program.'
South Carolina's artificial reef program promotes the growth of ecosystems in coastal waters that lack the coral or rocky outcroppings necessary for natural reef development, environmental officials say. Discarded items placed on the ocean floor provide a shelter and feeding area for marine life. '
Tuesday's dump was the third of four planned for the South Carolina coast, Martore said. Dumps in Charleston and Georgetown were completed last year.'
The final drop, to be made off of Myrtle Beach, should be done within a month, said Mike Zacchea, assistant chief operating officer for asset recovery for the New York City Transit System. After that dump, there will be 200 New York City subway cars in South Carolina reefs.'
Each car dropped Tuesday was carefully pushed by a backhoe into a predetermined spot, Martore said. The 34,000-pound cars aren't supposed to settle in stacks higher than 20 feet off the ocean bottom. '
The spots are determined mainly to make sure the cars don't land on top of the original components of the Betsy Ross Reef, which is located about 17 miles east of the north end of Hilton Head. Those components include the 430-foot-long USS Betsy Ross dumped in 1978, several portions of the Battery Creek Bridge and another 175-foot ship, Martore said.'
It takes about three weeks from when the last commuter steps off to when the subway car disappears into the ocean. In that time, the cars are stripped of all doors, windows, advertisements and other floatable materials.'
"This particular fleet we're just retiring. As we get the new cars, we take these cars out of service," Zacchea said. '
After one year in the ocean, the 52-foot-long cars will be unrecognizable -- covered with coral, sponges and algae and with fish, stingrays and even sea turtles swimming through.'
Only 5 percent to 10 percent of the ocean area off South Carolina's coast sustains reefs supporting fish communities, Martore said. Artificial reefs along the coast spread the fish and the anglers out into a larger area, he said.'
Local anglers have said Betsy Ross is one of the most popular reefs in the area, luring anglers with its seasonal barracuda, mackerel and bluefish, and drawing divers. '
Money from the saltwater fishing license fee pays for the subway cars dropped on four reefs off South Carolina's coast, Martore said.'
The reef building Tuesday cost South Carolina about $40,000, he said. But it cost the transit system about $200,000, Zacchea said.'
While the project costs New York City money, it saves the city nearly double the amount spent on disposal, as well as preserving landfill space.'
It will cost the transit system about $10 million to turn the 1,300 cars in the fleet -- nicknamed the "Redbirds" for their paint color -- into reefs along the East Coast in South Carolina, Delaware, Virginia and Georgia. That still saves the city about $20 million it would have had to pay to put the old cars into landfills, he said.'
Martore estimates the 42 artificial reefs along South Carolina's coast add about $20 million in revenue to the state from anglers, including bait, boats and even gas.