June 22, 2012

Budget compromise keeps Hatteras-Ocracoke
ferry free, raises tolls on others


By CONNIE LEINBACH



 A $20.2 billion budget compromise by the North Carolina state legislature passed Thursday and awaiting Gov. Beverly Perdue’s approval, has kept the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry a free ride.

It also has kept the Knotts Island to Currituck ferry free, and tolling on the Cherry Branch ferry will be delayed one fiscal year.

All other ferries will remain tolled, and increases in those rates, if any, have not yet been decided, according to Henri McClees, a lobbyist from Oriental, who with her husband, Joe, is working on behalf of Hyde, Pamlico, and Beaufort counties.

With that question is still not answered, Ocracoke residents and visitors may be back to fighting ferry toll increases to the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries. The specific language in the just-passed budget bill does not include a specific amount the Ferry Division has to raise from ferry tolls, McClees said.

“They’ll either apply the fee schedule they came up with (earlier this spring) or come up with another ferry toll plan,” she said.

However, the current bill does state: “The Department of Transportation shall disregard (Gov. Beverly Perdue’s) executive order and shall collect tolls required by last year’s law.”

Last year’s budget battle ended with the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Landing ferries being exempted from tolling, while raising tolls on all other routes starting April 1. Perdue’s executive order putting a moratorium on raising ferry tolls delayed that implementation.

If the budget passes, the question is whether or not DOT will use the schedule of fees it arrived at before April 1.

Under that plan, the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries will have the highest increases of all the tolled ferries.  A car would cost $27, up from $15; passengers in any sized vehicles would be $5, up from zero; pedestrians $5, up from $1; motorcycles and riders, $15, up from $10; vehicles or combination 20 feet or less $27, up from $15; vehicles or combination over 40 to 65 feet $65, up from $45.

The weblink for the current rules is http://www.ncdot.gov/about/regulations/rules/ProposedRules1.html

But, McClees said the schedule can’t go into effect until after the budget is finally passed.  

“If Perdue vetoes the budget, it still is not law,” McClees said. “If they address the budget again, it would be after it’s vetoed.”

In the meantime, Perdue has 10 days to either accept or veto the budget. If she vetoes it, the Senate has enough votes to override the veto, but the House does not.

McClees said the NC House of Representatives has been great in holding down ferry increases or additional tolls, thanks to Representatives Bill Owens of Elizabeth City and Tim Spear, who represents part of Hyde County.

The Senate is another matter.

“There are some people in the Senate Transportation Committee who are downright hostile,” she said.
 
Despite Sen. Stan White’s impassioned arguments (to leave the ferry tolls status quo), he is still in the minority, she said. White represents Dare and Hyde and other counties nearby.

“The Senate has the votes to override a veto by the Governor,” she said. “The House barely has it and only if four Democrats vote with Republicans. Bill Owens and Tim Spear are part of that four.”

If the Senate overrides the veto but the House does not, then the current budget will still be in effect, McClees said, which includes the mandate to raise tolls on tolled ferries. However, Perdue’s moratorium on raising tolls would still hold.

Authority as to what the ferry tolls will be rests with the North Carolina Board of Transportation, which is a politically-appointed body that oversees the DOT.  The 19 persons on this board each oversee a district in state.

George M. “Matt” Wood, Jr., of Camden, oversees District One, which include Hyde and Dare counties.

McClees said interested citizens are encouraged to write to Wood about their concerns.  Wood’s contact information, as well as information about the board, can be found at this weblink: http://www.ncdot.gov/about/board/

In the meantime, McClees said she and Joe got the go-ahead from some members of the House to draft a bill to study the economic impact on coastal citizens affected by any proposed ferry toll increase.

“We want this bill ready by next week and then to conduct it between this session and January,” she said. “This gives us more opportunities to get more information on the things we’re arguing about. Many of the legislators are just not informed enough about coastal issues to understand the devastation we’ve suffered.”

And they are also not informed about the unique geography of Hyde County.

“No one has considered Hyde County’s having to pay for county workers to ride the Swan Quarter ferry, or school buses,” she said. 

The argument from folks in the western part of the state that they pay tolls, too, doesn’t quite wash, she said. 

The specific language in the transportation law that says if a road is tolled, there must be an alternative free route available. The alternative route for Ocracokers is the free Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry.

Yes, we all pay taxes that help the western parts of the state plow snow in the winter or salt their roads, she said.

“But there’s nothing comparable anywhere in the state to these ferries,” she said. “We have ferries that are part of our highway system and we’re supposed to just foot the entire bill?”

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Senate budget wins final approval, with ferry tolls
Ocracokers are in shock about Republicans’ renewed effort to put tolls on Hatteras Inlet ferry
Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry tolls are back in proposed Senate budget

 



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