July 2, 2015

Commentary: About those ferry priority passes

The Ocracoke Observer

Many summer visitors experience frustration with the long lines at the Hatteras ferry terminal to visit Ocracoke. (Hint: To avoid long lines, arrive early or late in the day.)

If you haven’t been reading the Ocracoke Observer and other local news services over the last year, you may not be aware that the North Carolina Ferry Division is doing a feasibility study to see if visitors would be willing to leave their vehicles on Hatteras Island and board a passenger ferry that would go directly into Ocracoke village.

A passenger ferry that could accommodate up to 150 people -- including bicyclists -- was tested in early May and the travel time took just over an hour from Hatteras to the Silver Lake dock.

To make this a go, there would have to be infrastructure adjuncts, such as open tram-style buses making stops in the village, at the lighthouse, and very possibly to the island’s famous Lifeguard Beach. Golf carts, bicycles , boats, and SUVs for beach driving are already available for daily rentals.

If many visitors opt to take a passenger ferry, it could shorten considerably the wait for those who want or need to take a car ferry.

We are looking forward to reading this report, scheduled to be released in August, and we will keep you informed.

Also related to ferries–well hidden in the recently passed General Assembly Senate budget -- page 423 of a 500-plus page document – is a proposal that anyone who wants a pass for priority boarding on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry would have to purchase one for $150.

We know that folks waiting in line for hours have seen islanders and vendors drive right up to the dock and board.

This privilege may seem unfair to those having to wait. So here is our view.

The priority lane at the ferries was established to expedite islanders’ and vendors’ access to and from their homes and businesses. Only island residents and vendors can get into this lane. Ocracoke residents do not have access to anywhere near the level of services that urban America has. They have to go off island for many things–medical specialists, veterinarians, dental care, youth sports and shopping for items not available on the island.

The Ocracoke economy/work cycle is very different from most places. Those living on Ocracoke must put in long hours during the short tourist season, many working two and three jobs. These workers are desperately needed on the island to support the tourist economy.

Off-island trips have to be for the shortest time possible.

Venders delivering goods to the island’s stores and restaurants must also be able to make deliveries as quickly as possible.

We strongly oppose any fee for this important need for Ocracoke.

Potentially worse, the legislation in the Senate budget includes a study for potentially privatizing the state's ferry system.

Our very real fear with a privatized ferry system is that in order for a company to make a profit, it might drastically cut back on the number of ferry trips per day, both in and off-season.

We will have more to say on this later.

For those who say running a ferry system is costly and a government handout, consider the yearly state costs for bridge and road maintenance and for snow, ice and rock-slide removal throughout the state.

According to DOT figures, spending on snow and ice removal is $64 million so far this year. Last year it was $77 million. By contrast, the ferry system has a budget of $38.2 million, according to the NCDOT website. Ocracoke residents pay taxes like everyone else, and this money helps pay transportation costs for the entire state.

This budget bill was enthusiastically supported by our one of our representatives, Senator Bill Cook, R-District 1.

He issued a press release extolling the many benefits of this legislation, but neglected to mention that Ocracokers might have to pay $150 yearly for a priority pass and that ferry system might be privatized.

We asked him for an explanation, and he responded. We are printing only the parts of his lengthy response:

"Unfortunately, the priority pass language was included in the proposed budget from the Senate. Again, I am opposed to the priority pass provision.  I intend to continue to work to find alternative solutions. However, I supported the budget because (while it) is not perfect, overall it does a great deal of good for the constituents of Senate District 1."

Senator Cook’s press release can be found on the Ocracoke Observer website by clicking here.

The General Assembly House budget bill does not have these two ferry provisions. So, we hope they will be removed as the House and Senate work out an agreement.

Ocracoke’s House representative, Paul Tine, U-District 6, said he will oppose these two measures.

(For more news and features about Ocracoke Island, go to www.ocracokeobserver.com.)

comments powered by Disqus