July 31, 2014

Ferry tolling issue still unresolved
as legislature nears adjournment

By CONNIE LEINBACH

The skirmishes over tolling free ferries and raising tolls on the others are likely to be with us into next year.

The North Carolina General Assembly is expected to conclude its lengthy budget negotiations this week without making changes to legislation passed last year that opens the door for the changes to tolls.

S. Henri McClees, one of a duo of lobbyists hired by Hyde and two other coastal counties to promote coastal North Carolina interests, said yesterday that right now the transportation portion of the budget is the same as last year.

She said the budget was expected to be put online late last night. The printed version will be available today and the budget will be voted on today through Saturday before adjournment.

Last year, Gov. Pat McCrory devised a new -- and complicated -- funding formula to bankroll transportation needs across the state by dividing the state into 10 divisions that receive money according to population.

These divisions also have local input in the form of Rural Planning Organizations that are tasked with deciding how their pot of money is spent.   The Albemarle Commission RPO, which includes Hyde and Dare counties, received $32 million with which to fund all of the division needs -- roads, bridges, rail, airports, bike and pedestrian projects, and ferry replacement.

A provision in the budget passed in 2013 allows for the N.C. Dept. of Transportation to enact tolls to pay for ferry replacement but only with a request by the local RPO.

Last December, the state Board of Transportation, an appointed group that oversees transportation for the state, ordered the DOT to devise a ferry tolling plan, and Ocracokers and folks from other coastal communities spoke against adding or raising tolls at several hearings on the plans. 

After these hearings concluded in February, the RPOs that have ferries in their transportation mix declined to request tolls.

When the legislature reconvened in May, bills were introduced in both chambers to eliminate ferry tolls, but neither of these bills remained in the Senate version of the budget over which the two houses have been arguing for the better part of this month.

“Although the House pressed for a final resolution of the ferry toll issue, Senate conferees refused to discuss the issue,” McClees said in an e-mail. 

 Rep. John A. Torbett (R-Gaston), who is chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, along with Charles Jeter (R-Mecklenberg) and Paul Tine (D-Kitty Hawk),  have advocated for eliminating ferry tolls, but the majority of the Senate feels that ferries should require a user fee.

“Tourism produces needed revenue, whereas tolling removes money from coastal communities,” McClees said about the message she and her husband, Joe, the other half of the duo, are pressing for. “We will bring this concept to the General Assembly when they convene in January.”



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