January 22, 2014

Hearings set for tolling free ferries


The North Carolina Department of Transportation has scheduled a hearing on tolling the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry for Wednesday, Feb. 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Ocracoke School gym, 120 School Road.   It is one of four hearings the DOT will hold about this issue.

This go-round, it’s all about filling the state’s coffers for the eventual replacement of ferries.

Timothy Hass, DOT Ferry Division spokesman, said in a news release today that Senate Bill 402, the 2013 appropriations bill, established that paying for new ferries will in the future come out of ferry tolls. 

A $7 per-car price is listed in the “methodology” devised by the DOT (and included in the release) for each way on the Hatteras-Ocracoke route.  Vehicles 20- to 40-feet would pay $14 and those over 40 feet would pay $28. 

There’s also a provision for riders to buy an annual pass for $200 for all three ferries out of Ocracoke. 

There is nothing in the methodology about exempting school buses or county vehicles – or residents or vendors.

The tolling scenario can be viewed online at the following link: http://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/Proposed_Ferry_Toll_Rates.pdf

“All the tolling is for ferry replacement,” Hass explained.

Hass said the DOT Board of Transportation, a group of 19 men and women from across the state who are appointed to oversee the DOT, asked the staff to come up with an income number needed per year over a 20-year period to replace ferries, which cost about $16 million each.  Hass said they came up with $5 million needed from tolling per year.

This is all part of the new transportation funding formula implemented statewide last year called the Strategic Transportation Initiative, which divided the state into several districts and gave those districts a pot of money from which to fund roads, rail, bike trails and ferries. A percentage of the money is split equally among the districts and part of it is based on the area’s population, which puts rural and less populated areas such as Hatteras and Ocracoke at a disadvantage.

Hass said the DOT created the methodology to fund ferry replacement and after the hearings, it will go to the respective Regional Transportation Organizations (RPOs) to approve it.

S. Henri McClees, one of a team of lobbyists hired by Hyde and other coastal counties to fight ferry tolls, stressed that these RPOs have final say about ferry tolling, as set forth in the Board of Transportation’s “Ferry Tolling Methodology Resolution” that was approved this month.

The paragraph in the resolution says: “…no tolling can be implemented on any existing ferry route without a resolution from the affected local Transportation Planning organization requesting tolling from the N.C. Board of Transportation.”

McClees thinks the Board of Transportation is trying to strong-arm the RPOs into accepting this tolling plan.

“Tolling will never raise enough money to buy ferries,” she said in an interview Tuesday night. “Now they’re threatening the RPOs that they have to toll or take money out of their allocation for that year to buy ferries.  This is a disaster for Ocracoke.”

The allocation for District 1, which includes Hyde, Dare, Currituck counties and several other counties is  $32 million.

Hass noted that there are 22 ferries in the fleet. Three are older than 25, with two of those approaching 50 years old. Eleven boats are 16 to 25 years old; five are between 6 and 15 years old, and three are 5 years old or less.

“In the past, if the ferry division needed a new boat, they just asked for an appropriation,” Hass said. “Now, this (new formula) is how it’s going to work. The legislature gives us money for just operations and maintenance.”

If the respective RPOs vote against this new methodology, any requests to purchase new ferries will go back into the STI, which includes the prospect of enacting or raising ferry tolls and/or selling advertising and concessions.

McClees said that the proper way to raise money for new ferries is by raising the gasoline tax.

Malcolm Fearing of Manteo, our region’s representative on the RPO, said that although he will be in Board of Transportation meetings the day of Ocracoke’s hearing, the DOT will fly him and Richard Walls, Deputy Transit Secretary, to the meeting.

Although he’d rather there be no tolls on any ferries, Fearing said he voted for the methodology because of the current legislation.  He disputes that the gasoline tax can be raised because those revenues have been declining across the country due to the increased gas mileage in automobiles. 

As for tolling the Wright Bridge across the Currituck Sound, as some have suggested, to help cover some of these costs (and spread the cost among more people), Fearing said that can’t be taken up in the Legislature until 2015.

He said if McClees has a better idea about funding ferry replacement, he’d like to hear it.


Tuesday, Feb. 4, 7-9 p.m.
Knotts Island Elementary School
413 Woodleigh Road
Knotts Island

Wednesday, Feb. 5, 7-9 p.m.
Ocracoke School
120 Schoolhouse Road

Thursday, Feb. 6, 7-9 p.m
Pamlico Community College - Delamar Center
5049 Highway 306 South

Thursday, Feb. 13, 4-7 p.m.
ILA - Southport
211 W. 10th Street

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