February 25, 2014


Residents and officials speak against ferry
tolls at Ocracoke and Hatteras

By CONNIE LEINBACH



Ocracoke and mainland Hyde residents who attended a hearing last night on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to toll the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry were overwhelmingly against putting a toll on their only free access to their homes.

“A toll on the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry would devastate our local economy,” said Chip Stevens, owner of Blackbeard’s Lodge, who made a PowerPoint presentation on the unique qualities of Ocracoke.  “How is the ferry system different from any highway system? How fair is it to make Ocracoke the only town in North Carolina that has to pay to go home?”

Stevens was among several islanders and officials who spoke to the crowd of more than 150 in the Ocracoke School gym following the NCDOT’s formal presentation of how they would toll the Hatteras ferry and raise tolls on the Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ferries in order to comply with a state law enacted last June.   

Last Wednesday night, Feb. 19, a smaller crowd attended the hearing at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras village. All of the dozen or so speakers opposed the ferry tolls.

The hearings are about the General Assembly’s insistence on raising $5 million per year from the seven ferries in the eastern part of the state in order to pay for replacement boats in the 22-boat fleet.  

According to the legislation, the decision to enact tolls to raise more revenue is now in the hands of local folks who are part of the Rural Transportation Organization (RPO) of the Albemarle Commission.  This RPO includes 10 counties in eastern North Carolina.

A complicated funding procedure devised last year by Gov. Pat McCrory and called the Strategic Transportation Investments Plan divided the state into 10 regions all of which were given $32 million with which to fund bridges, trains, airports, roads, bike and pedestrian projects, and ferry replacement. Prior to this initiative, ferry replacements were done by an appropriation from the legislature.

If the local RPO takes no action on the DOT’s request for tolls, it will go back to the legislature, said RPO chairman Lloyd Griffin in an interview today.

But last night, island and mainland residents made passionate appeals against this third attempt in as many years to toll the Hatteras ferry.

“This is insanity,” said Tom Pahl. “The legislators who are responsible for this are not here at this hearing. They created this law and they can undo it. There are other options.”

Hyde County manager Bill Rich noted that one of those options is the gasoline tax, which should pay for the ferries as it does for highways, of which the Ocracoke ferries are a part.

“The DOT has a $4.3 billion budget which means they spend $11.8 million a day,” he said.  Of the $5 million estimated revenue from tolling, about $2.8 million of that would come from a proposed toll on the Hatteras ferry. 

“Why should they ask us for $2.8 million when they’re spending $11 million a day’” Rich continued.  “This is unbelievable.”

Ocracoke resident Jim Borland echoed several speakers when he asked the RPO not to bring this up for a vote.

“This is a bad law and a bad idea that will hurt our economy,” Borland said.  He proposed another option to islanders.

“If (the RPO doesn’t) vote in our best interest we could band together and file a class action lawsuit against this,” he said.

Janet Sears Russ of mainland Hyde said that Hyde County has one of the highest poverty levels in the United States and that North Carolina has one of the highest gasoline taxes as well.  “They decided to divide the state (into these transportation divisions) and pit one group against another.”

“It is a shame that this group of legislators thinks it’s better to punish Eastern North Carolina,” she said.

Earl Pugh, Jr., vice-chairman of the Hyde County commissioners, noted the recent assault on this area’s economy in recent years from hurricanes destroying roads and shoaling the Hatteras Inlet, the NPS instituting beach-driving fees, and looming increases in homeowners’ insurance.

“And now tolls on the lifeline of Ocracoke,” he said. “New bridges aren’t tolled.”

Islander Arleen Burley pointed out the finances on a DOT 2013-2014 “Sources and Uses” chart she found online.

“Thirty-four million dollars was taken from the DOT revenue and is being returned to the general fund and the treasury,” she said. “If these funds were returned to the DOT, we wouldn’t need any tolls on any ferries.”

Tommy Hutcherson, owner of the Ocracoke Variety Store, said a toll on the Hatteras ferry would cause all of his vendors to raise their prices, which would force him to raise prices on his groceries.

“Let’s keep Ocracoke a destination not an aggravation,” he said.

H. M. “Butch” Petrey, a Currituck County commissioner, who is on the RPO and who attended the meeting said Currituck is on Ocracoke’s side, as are Camden and Dare counties.

“I will vote ‘hell no’ on ferry tolls,” he said. “This is not a DOT issue. This is a Raleigh issue.”

State Rep. Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk, who represents Hyde and Dare counties, asked that the RPO take no action on the DOT’s request and send it back to Raleigh.

“There’s no doubt we (legislators) created this problem, and we’d like to work on it in the short session that begins in May,” he said. “I can’t guarantee anything, but there are some in the legislature that would like all ferries to be free.”

Additionally, he said it’s important for people to make their voices heard by contacting the legislators in Raleigh. “We need people to weigh in,” he said.  “Their voice really does matter.”

S. Henri McClees, one of the lobbyist team hired by several coastal counties, said that on Friday, the Down East RPO was the first one to take no action on the DOT’s request for tolls.

“These tolling numbers cannot work,” she said as she ripped in two the DOT hand-out.

After the meeting, Richard Walls, deputy secretary for transit, who devised the tolling methodology and attended the meeting, said the meeting was comparable to the ones on Knotts Island and Pamlico in attendance and intensity.  He also said the DOT is working on a request-for-proposals for advertising on the ferry system that should be out soon.

At the Hatteras hearing, residents of Hatteras and Ocracoke, along with officials from several counties spoke against the tolling plan.  They included three Dare County commissioners – Warren Judge, Allen Burrus, and Wally Overman -- a Currituck County County commissioner and a Hyde County commissioner.

“Slot machines are the only fair way to do it,” was the comment of Hyde commissioner John Fletcher, who represents Ocracoke.  Earlier this month at a commission meeting, he proposed adding slot machines on the sound ferries to raise revenue.

After the Ocracoke meeting, although he did not speak, islander Bill Jones commented on the spirit of the island residents.

“I’m so happy with the people on this island,” he said. “I’m so glad to live here.”

To look at the DOT’s methodology, click on this PDF link of the Board of Transportation December meeting minutes. The methodology is Exhibit A at the end. http://www.ncdot.gov/board/bot/current/201312_Minutes.pdf

Angela Welsh, a staffer with the Albemarle Commission, though she did not speak Monday night, provided the commission’s website http://www.albemarlecommission.org/planning for people to get more information about this complicated process.  It includes a page on ferries.

(Irene Nolan also contributed to this story.)

 

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