January 19, 2012

Ocracokers turn out in force to oppose increase in ferry tolls

By CONNIE LEINBACH


Ocracokers are feeling like the critters in the carnival game “Whack-a-Mole” as they grapple with the looming increase in ferry tolls on the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries mandated by the state legislature last summer. 

Residents feel that it’s just one more thing this tiny island is getting whacked with.

More than 180 islanders attended a public meeting sponsored by the North Carolina Department of Transportation Ferry Division in the Ocracoke School Gym on Wednesday night, Jan. 17, to hear Paul Morris, deputy transit director, explain how the agency developed its ferry toll increase scenarios and to seek input.

About a dozen islanders spoke, and all were against raising the sound-class ferry rates, noting it would kill tourism—the main industry on the island—thus killing the livelihoods of the 900 permanent residents.  Several said they didn’t support any of the options presented.

Scenarios were presented by Morris; Harold Thomas, ferry division director; Will Letchworth of CDM Smith, the consulting firm that did the ferry toll study, and Jamille Robbins, an NCDOT official.   No state legislators attended.

 A tolling plan must be in place by April 1, Morris said.

Several times, Morris stressed that his department is powerless to rescind the directive and is mandated to devise a plan that will raise the $5 million in revenue the legislators want in three years. Currently, the Ferry Division raises about $2 million in revenues.

“I hear you,” he said. “We see nothing good in this, and it is painful for us, but this is a law passed by the General Assembly,” he said.  “We have to follow it.  The only way to change this is to change the law.”

Morris explained that they studied ferry systems throughout the nation and came up with four models to raise revenue on five of the seven routes, with Hatteras-Ocracoke and the Knotts Island ferries remaining free.

Of all the tolled routes, the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries are the most expensive to run at $2 per mile, according to Morris.  Passenger car fees could increase to $25 to $33 under the various scenarios, up from the $15 current price, thus making a round-trip to visit Swan Quarter, the county seat, cost up to $66.   Walk-ons, bicycles, motorcycles, even passengers in cars, would rise from no charge to $15.

Paying $50 to $60 for a round trip to visit the county seat, Swan Quarter, was cited by many as unfair. Many residents also noted that people who live on Ocracoke don’t commute daily to Swan Quarter or Cedar Island, although they do take trips to Swan Quarter for official business, such as jury duty and other business at the county courthouse.

“To double this ferry toll will cripple the system,” noted Jerry Gaskill of Cedar Island, who was the Ferry Division Director for 13 years.  “You’re going to lose traffic by 25 percent and will lose $8 million in revenue,” he said.

He urged those in attendance to contact legislators about their concerns.

“You heard about the ‘Highway to Nowhere’ in Alaska?” he said. “We’re going to have a $60 million ferry system to nowhere.  Contact your legislators and say we’re not going to do this.”

Reggie O’Neal, a native Ocracoker and former ferry captain, said that if the state needs revenue, it should toll I-95.

“You have singled out an island that is 13 miles long and three miles wide,” he said a few times. “We do not need to do this. It’s wrong.”

“This is totally picking on a small group of people,” said Theresa O’Neal, who owns the Island Ragpicker.

“This is an outrageous increase for those on fixed incomes on the island,” said Brian Warren.  “Y’all are just working to dig a hole deeper for these people.  It’s really going to be a hardship.

The ferry system is part of the highway system, several noted.

“You owe them a road,” said Paul Spruill, CEO of Tideland Electric, who also said that increased tolls would trickle down to increased costs for electricity for residents.

Two residents noted that the Ferry Division budget is a minute portion of the overall transportation budget – just 1 percent.

“The Ferry Division cost is like a flea on a dog’s back out of the whole transportation budget,” said David Styron.

Hyde County Commissioner Darlene Styron, who represents Ocracoke, said that though the state wants to make more revenue from the ferry system, state coffers will receive even less revenue as tourists go elsewhere to spend their money.

“I don’t think an increase in tolls is needed,” she said. “I don’t stand behind any of these.”

She also stressed that exemptions from ferry fees that islanders now enjoy, such as for medical appointments, education, and jury duty and for county workers, must remain.

County Emergency Medical Service deputy director Brian Carter asked that EMS workers be exempt from paying the toll or else they will decline to work for the county, which would force him to drop one of the two ambulances.  In the summer tourist season, Ocracoke Island needs two ambulances since the population can swell to 10,000.

“Dropping an ambulance in the summer is not an option for me,” he said.

Hyde County Commissioner chairwoman Sharon Spencer, with a catch in her voice, said that this effort to raise ferry tolls breaks her heart.

“I’m ashamed of the government that I work for that they would shove this down peoples’ throats without trying to find out the impact it has on them,” she said.  “They do more studies for birds than they do for us.”

Although he did not attend the meeting, islander Ken DeBarth likened beleaguered Ocracoke to the “Whack-a-Mole” game.

 “Every time we look up we’re getting whacked with something else,” he said.   “First it’s the Coast Guard, which last summer decided that the weight limits on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry needed to be enforced); then it’s the birds; then the NPS with beach permits; then it’s ferry tolls...”

Further taxing will effectively kill this small place, he noted.

“Why not toll the Wright Memorial Bridge (over the Currituck Sound in Kitty Hawk) that serves all of the Outer Banks?” he said. “Revenue from that could be spread around to us.”

Morris noted that the several meetings the Transportation Department is doing around the coast were not part of the legislative directive but were ordered by Gov. Bev Perdue.

Prior to Morris’s presentation, Bradford Sneeden, a policy advisor for Perdue, read a statement from the governor.

“I never supported these tolls,” he read.  “It is unjust and inflicts a tax on the workers, but I am not lawfully able to overturn this tax.  I stand with you when I vetoed this budget last June 13.”

Morris concluded by saying that a formal public hearing will take place in Raleigh once the rates are in place, but those hearings will not affect the outcome.  A date for that hearing has not been set.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For more information, contact Jamille Robbins, NCDOT- Human Environment Unit at 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh 27699-1598, (919) 707-6085 or [email protected] Additional written comments regarding the proposed project may be submitted to Robbins until Feb. 16.

To view a presentation on the NCDOT Ferry Division’s options for rate increases, go to http://www.slideshare.net/NCDOTComOffice/presentation-ferry-tolling-10911226

  


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