February 22, 2012
UPDATE:  Hyde County is gearing up to take on legislators over ferry tolls

By CONNIE LEINBACH


The Hyde County Commissioners are looking for as many Ocracoke and mainland residents as possible to travel with them to Raleigh for a March 9 Joint Transportation Committee meeting where ferry tolls will be discussed.

 “We need to go to Raleigh and make some noise,” said county manager Mazie Smith at the Board of Commissioners meeting Feb. 20.  “The stand for Hyde County is no tolls on any ferries in the state. “

She said it would be best if people can physically go to Raleigh and make their feelings known.

“We need to let them know one more time that this is not acceptable,” she said.  “This will be the last shot we’ll have to vocally, visually let them know we’re against ferry tolls.”

Although the meeting is listed on the www.ncleg.net website for 9 a.m. that day, it could be cancelled at the last minute.

Smith reported that Pamlico and Beaufort counties are working together on this issue and that Beaufort County has hired a lobbyist.

However, these counties’ viewpoints are not quite aligned with those of Hyde since Pamlico and Beaufort feel that tourists ought to be bearing the costs of the ferry operations, which means they support a toll at the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.  Smith said, however, that she will talk with both counties again to try to persuade them to align with Hyde for no tolls at all.

An effort by the General Assembly last year to put tolls on the Ocracoke ferry was dropped but the legislators demanded that the ferry division increase its revenues from $2 million to $5 million, mostly by increasing tolls. That would mean increasing the tolls on the ferries from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter, the county seat, and to Cedar Island.

At an informational meeting last month with the state Department of Transportation, Ocracokers overwhelmingly opposed increasing tolls on the ferries and supported keeping the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry free.

Smith also noted that Pamlico County is considering filing a lawsuit charging that ferry tolls throughout eastern North Carolina are discriminatory.

“It’s discriminatory because they’re not charging the whole state to be on the roads, just this area,” she said.

If Pamlico County files a lawsuit, Hyde County would like to join in, Smith said.

A resolution against all tolls, passed by the commissioners Feb.6, has been distributed far and wide, Smith said, and other counties and organizations have passed similar resolutions.

“But it’s falling on deaf ears,” she said.  “At this point in the process, a resolution is not going to be as effective (as a physical presence).  We ought to swarm Raleigh and talk to the legislators face-to-face or else stand out on the sidewalks with signs.”

Smith added that Harold Thomas, Ferry Division director, has said there will be no exemptions given for ferry tolls.

Ocracoke residents are stressed about the prospect of having to pay to go off the island for personal and business reasons when other places served by ferries have alternative access.

“If they put a toll on the Hatteras ferry, we don’t have an alternative (free) route,” Darlene Styron, the county commissioner who represents Ocracoke, said at the meeting, her voice sometimes choking with emotion. 

“We’re paying some of the highest gas prices here and now we’re having to pay to drive on the beach,” she continued.  “Unless you live here, you can’t understand how ridiculous is it for me to have to pay to leave my home and come back.  It burns me up when people talk about this who don’t live here.”

Styron pointed out that the Ferry Division budget is less than one percent of the entire state transportation budget.

The issue with ferry tolls, she said, is a personal vendetta against retired state Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight of Manteo, whose political skills were a great boon to eastern North Carolina.

The state receives a lot of income from tourists who visit Ocracoke and the Outer Banks, which will fall off dramatically if ferry tolls are increased or even levied on the non-tolled routes, noted Styron.

“If people don’t visit here, there will be less sales tax revenue, and businesses will lose money, people will lose jobs, vendors won’t come, and so on,” she said.

Smith noted that she and County Commission Chairperson Sharon Spencer have been attending as many regional meetings as possible on the ferry toll issue.

“It seems like all the state costs are being passed down to the local level, county manager Smith said.

“And we can’t afford it,” she continued. 

Moreover, Ocracoke, which is in very rural Hyde County, is a bit different from other, perhaps larger, islands accessible only by ferry, such as Nantucket, Mass.

“They are wealthier,” she said. “This is not a resort. These are working people's homes.”

In a few days, information on the bus to Raleigh will be on the Hyde County website, www.hydecountync.gov.  Details are still to be determined.



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