January 15, 2013
Guest Column:
Some good questions about ferry tolls need answers

By Sandy Semans Ross  

According to a story posted on the website of the News & Observer in Raleigh on Jan. 13, the North Carolina Board of Transportation has voted to increase fees on ferries currently charging vehicles and to add tolls to several routes that have been free. These new taxes become effective on July 1.

The link to the story is: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/01/12/2602599/board-of-transportation-members.html

The only ferries not to come under the new toll rates on July 1, are the Hatteras-Ocracoke route and the Currituck-Knotts Island route. Some board members, states the story, objected to not charging tolls on the two exempted routes because the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is the most heavily used in the state. If it also was taxed, it would allow reducing the tolls on the other ferries, they argued.

Ocracoke Island is accessible only by ferry -- either the taxed ferry from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter on the mainland or via Hatteras Island ferry, which is free. If the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is tolled, there will be no free way to access the island. Ocracoke residents would have to pay to access any other part of the state.

The ferry trip from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter -- the county seat for Hyde County that includes the island -- takes about 2.5 hours one way. The only "free" transportation corridor is via Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, then Highway 12 north to Whalebone Junction, west on U.S. 64 to U.S. 264 in Manns Harbor, and then approximately two hours to the county courthouse for a total of about 6 hours.

An interesting story about this issue would answer the following questions:

  1. Does state law and/or the North Carolina Constitution guarantee that the public can move freely throughout the state? If so, how would that apply to Ocracoke islanders if use of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry was taxed, thus removing the only free access to the island?
  2. Is there any location in the state that can be accessed only by paying a tax? Where?
  3. Taxes on the Ocracoke-Swan Quarter and Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferries will be more than doubled beginning on July 1. How will that affect the cost of supplies and services provided to the island from the mainland? Who will be the hardest hit by this increase?
  4. Will the increased tax pull money out of the local economy? If so, will this impact small businesses, particularly those that remain open in the winter when there is little tourism?
  5. If the island's economy is negatively impacted, will there be a secondary impact on other state agencies' budgets? If a resident has to go to the mainland for medical services on a regular basis, will the increased cost discourage them from seeking the health care they need?
  6. Will the added cost of transportation equate to a larger number of residents getting increased financial help and food stamps from Social Services and higher reimbursements from Medicaid? Will other government agencies have a direct cost by having to pay the tax for their vehicles/passengers?
  7. The stated goal of raising the taxes is to collect an additional $5 million with which to partially fund the ferry division. Other taxes already in place -- such as the gas tax -- are used to fund the Department of Transportation of which the Ferry Division is a part. Is there a goal of tolling all transportation corridors across the state to offset the cost of maintaining roads, highways and bridges?
  8. If not, why are these water transportation routes that are part of the state system being taxed?
  9. Before passage of the increased and new taxes, was there an economic impact study done to identify potential unintended consequences?
  10. If, at a later date, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry route is taxed, how will that affect businesses that rely on employees who use the ferry to travel from home to work?
  11. Will the General Assembly take up this issue when it convenes? How do these  taxes fit into the promise of less taxes so that there can be more economic growth?
  12. Frequently, the fact that the coast depends on tourism is used to try to argue that not all those being taxed are residents. But, in this case, all the residents are being taxed regardless of how many tourists use the ferries. Does who pays really make a difference tax?

Please let me know if you find this story. I'm eager to get the answers.

(Sandy Semans Ross, former managing editor of The Outer Banks Sentinel, is a freelance writer who lives in Stumpy Point.  You can read more of her blogs at www.sunshineobx.blogspot.com.) 

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