March 29, 2013

Ocracokers get some good news amid transportation woes

By CONNIE LEINBACH



There’s a revolution in Raleigh, said Joe McClees about two bills introduced in the legislature Thursday, March 28, to eliminate ferry tolls.

Joe and Henri McClees are the lobbyists hired by Hyde, Beaufort, and Pamlico counties to represent the coast in Raleigh.

“We have coalitions of new Democrats and Republicans who have decided we need a new way of doing business,” Joe said.  “The new guys and gals believe they need to figure out how to help North Carolinians.”

The bills are “Ferry Tolling Alternatives,” House Bill 475 and Senate Bill 524.

Authors of these bills that propose to eliminate ferry tolls and find new revenue sources are Charles Jeter, freshman Republican from Mecklenburg and Paul Tine, freshman Democrat from Kitty Hawk, with House Transportation Co-Chair John Torbett of Gaston County and Frank Iler, veteran Republican from Oak Island. 
 
Coastal Republican senators, Norman Sanderson and Bill Cook, filed the Senate version of  “Ferry Tolling Alternatives.”

According to these bills, new revenue sources for the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division would include selling numerous concessions, including wireless Internet service, selling naming rights to ferries, routes, and buildings, and numerous individual advertising opportunities, noted Henri McClees.

 “I am delighted to work on this bipartisan effort with two inland legislators and Rep. Iler from the southern coast,” noted Tine about the House bill.  “The ferries are our highways, serving our citizens and welcoming our visitors. With high coastal unemployment rates and slow economic recovery, we need to advertise one of North Carolina’s great tourism assets, our unique ferry system.”

There are better ways to raise money than tax our overburdened citizens, Sanderson said.

“Ferries offer scenic trips across coastal waters, punctuated by the friendly brogue of ferry workers,” he said. “We should promote our coast, not tax ourselves.”

Rep. Michael Speciale is a co-sponsor of House Bill 475, as well as sponsor of House Bill 62, the first bill seeking to rescind tolling on the now free Pamlico and Neuse River ferries. 

“I filed House Bill 62 early, because it is that important to protect our coastal citizens,” Speciale said.

Citizens interested in writing to legislators about the ferry issues now have the bill numbers to which they can refer.  Texts of and updates on the bills can be found at www.ncleg.net.  Click on “legislation/bills” then enter the bill number, either H475 or S524.

Henri McClees said the next step for the bills is that they are assigned to committees and then they have to be heard by the committees.

“We don’t know when that will be,” Henri said. “We’re weeks away from that, but when they are heard we’ll need citizens to come to Raleigh for support.”

In 2011, the state legislature proposed to raise $5 million in revenue, up from $2 million, from the Ferry Division budget.  That June, after an aggressive campaign by islanders and visitors against tolls, the legislature exempted the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Island ferries from tolls in exchange for raising tolls on other ferries.

Then the DOT researched and devised a plan to raise that revenue.  Overwhelmingly, the hue and cry from islanders and visitors was for no toll increases.   Former Gov. Beverly Perdue heard the pleas and in February 2012 ordered a one-year moratorium on this action.
 
That moratorium expired in January, and the legislature adopted a new resolution directing the Ferry Division to establish ferry tolls according to the 2011 mandate. 

Recent DOT hearings on toll increases were reruns of the 2011 hearings for the DOT’s recommended revenue plan, which would raise fees on the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries by more than twice the current price, including a $5 fee for all passengers.

Earlier this week, islanders were dismayed to learn of a line-item in newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget of “$76,000 for a toll booth at Hatteras Ferry,” prompting concerns about tolling the Hatteras Ferry.

However, Crystal Feldman, the Governor’s press secretary, confirmed that this item in McCrory’s budget was in error and has been pulled.

Henri McClees also said that Tuesday, April 16, is the deadline for comments about the ferry tax increases outlined in the recent DOT hearings.
 
“There is no limit to the information you can send to support our objections to increased ferry taxes,” she said in an email to people on Ocracoke. “It does not matter if you feel you are repeating yourself.  Take this opportunity to object and give your specific reasons why the ferry tax is unreasonable.”

After April 16, the DOT will make its final decision and submit it to the North Carolina Rules Review Commission. 

“We will have the opportunity to submit objections to the RRC at the proper time,” Henri McClees said.

Beleaguered Ocracokers face transportation issues on other fronts. 

Mother Nature wrought more havoc this winter on Highway 12 at the S-curves, where the ocean overwashed the road again in mid-March. DOT placed sandbags there after Superstorm Sandy in October and several northeasters in November severely eroded the beach.

McCrory recently declared that section of Highway 12 in a state of emergency, which authorized the DOT to conduct beach nourishment to protect the road in the short term.

Dara Demi, lead communications officer with the NCDOT, said the nourishment consists of DOT taking sand from a nearby canal and depositing it again on top of the sandbags.  While Ocracoke experienced some overwash at the north end of the island at the same time, the DOT has no plans to place sandbags there, Demi said.

Updates on this can be found at the NCDOT NC12 Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/NCDOT?fref=ts.

It looks as if there will be several more weeks before the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry returns to its regular schedule.

The pipeline dredge Richmond is still working in the Hatteras Inlet channel and is expected to finish mid-April—two weeks after the contracted completion date.

Allen Burrus, a Dare County commissioner, said on Wednesday that there’s 400 to 500 feet left to dredge.

“They’ve had a lot of problems working there,” he said. “There’s a lot more sand than they anticipated when they bid the project.”

Adding to the increased work is the fact that the dredge arrived in Hatteras Inlet in December instead of September, when it was expected, he said. In those three months, more sand piled up in the affected areas.

Even though dredging will continue into April—past some environmental windows—the dredge company has been allowed to exceed the time limit because it was hampered by the weather this winter, Burrus said.

Until then, the N.C. Ferry Division is using an alternate route between the islands that takes about an hour, and the ferry schedules have changed until the regular ferry can resume.

Jed Dixon, ferry division deputy director, said the crews haven’t missed a departure, though there are fewer runs in each direction.

Updates on the schedules can be found at www.ncdot.org/ferry.

In addition, in the next 10 days, the state should have its own pipeline dredge at the north ferry docks on Ocracoke to dredge there, Dixon said.

The Rollinson Channel in Hatteras Inlet is federally designated and is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while the ferry basin is the responsibility of the state.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Islanders and visitors can get updated details on the ferry toll issue at several websites including the Hyde County website, www.hydecountync.gov, and the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association website: www.ocracokevillage.com.

Comments about the adoption of the rule to establish tolls should be sent to the following address:

NC Dept. of Transportation
Mr. Jamille Robbins
NCDOT-Human Environment Section
1598 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-1598
[email protected]
 

 

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