(Editor's note: This editorial is reprinted with permission from the Ocracoke Observer website, www.ocracokeobserver.com.)
the last couple of weeks, Ocracoke residents and businesses have
had to face the prospect once again of tolling the Hatteras car ferries.
of now, the parties pressing for a toll to generate funds for
replacement ferries have agreed to wait until after the General
Assembly convenes next spring to see if these funds can be appropriated
out of the North Carolina Department of Transportation general fund.
We will keep an eye on this situation, but for a short time
recently the prospect of a toll on the still-free Hatteras ferry
Since 2011 when ferry tolls were proposed, the island (and its friends) has successfully fought off this gambit.
the last year, N.C. Ferry Division officials have, in their monthly
meetings on the island, focused primarily on the addition of a for-fee
passenger ferry from Hatteras village into Silver Lake. The state has
received a $7 million federal grant to help make this happen,
including the necessary infrastructure and the purchase of one
ferry. This is a great plus, since it is outside of the region’s shared
transportation pot as you will see below. A feasibility study on this
is expected to be completed before the end of this year.
Up until October, ferry tolls were not a topic in these community meetings.
many were surprised when County Manager Bill Rich reported
at the Hyde County Commissioners’ October meeting and the following
week at the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association that a ferry
toll for Hatteras was back on the table. One proposal, he revealed,
would allow anyone to purchase a commuter pass for
Hatteras, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island for $75 per year. Visitors and
islanders alike not opting in for this pass would pay a one-way or
round-trip fee to be determined.
Ferry Division is grappling with how to get much-needed money to pay
for replacement ferries in their aging fleet of 22 boats. The average
age of the boats is 26 years old, with two that have been in service
for 52 years and one for 47 years. As you can imagine, older boats need
more frequent repairs which takes them out of service for various
periods of time. New car ferries cost about $16 million while a
passenger ferry would cost around $2 million.
challenge for the Ferry Division was made even greater when in 2013,
Gov. Pat McCrory launched a new way to fund transportation needs
statewide. He divided the state into 10 regional transportation
planning organizations, allocating $32 million to each to fund all
transportation needs, including road repair, bridge maintenance, snow
and sand removal and new ferries.
is part of the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO) which
consists of 10 eastern Carolina counties. As it stands now, it is the
ARPO, not the General Assembly, that has the authority to decide
whether to implement a toll for the Hatteras ferry.
a briefing by the Ferry Division, the Dare County Commissioners, who
are among the 10 counties in the ARPO, voted 6 to 1 at their
October meeting to support such a Hatteras toll should this be on the
quarterly ARPO meeting agenda. In the Dare meeting, no one
speculated on what impact a ferry toll would have on Ocracoke’s
County officials and Rep. Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk) who were attending
the Ocracoke monthly ferry meeting earlier that same day were unaware
that ferry tolls would be on the Dare County agenda and
heard Ferry Director Ed Goodwin say he would fight for what
Ocracoke wants. So much for communication.
tolls made the agenda for the ARPO quarterly meeting on Oct. 21, but no
vote was taken. The issue is expected to be taken up in the Jan.
its Nov. 16 meeting, Dare County Board of Commissioners was asked by
Rich to reconsider its support of tolling the Hatteras ferry. The
board declined to reconsider by a vote of 5-2.
don’t envy the Ferry Division’s difficult challenge of having to come
up with ferry replacement money. They have to provide service and are
frustrated that, although promised, no real money is currently
available outside of the $32 million fund.
certainly it is not realistic that ferry purchases should come out
of this limited transportation fund to serve 10 counties.
the General Assembly, Tine and Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, who
are co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee Transportation, are
strongly against tolls on any ferry. They want to get funding for ferry
replacement out of the ARPO funding and are working on getting the
General Assembly to take up this issue when it reconvenes in April.
Replacing a ferry is the same as replacing a dump truck, Torbett said.
Hatteras-Ocracoke route is the most traveled ferry in the North
Carolina system, having carried 305,744 vehicles in 2014, or 34 percent
of the traffic on all seven routes, according to a presentation
made by Jed Dixon, assistant ferry division director in April to the
House Appropriations, Transportation, Committee. The next
most-traveled route is Cherry Branch at 238,681, and the least traveled
is Currituck at 24,450.
So it’s no wonder that policymakers see dollar signs to be had here.
The Ferry Division has been requested to seek funding by obtaining sponsorship naming rights. So far, nothing has come of this.
are concerned that not enough discussion has focused on the impact a
ferry toll would have on Ocracoke’s small business economy. How
many “day-trippers” (visitors) who spend just the day, would decide not
to make the trip due to this fee? Would they take the ferry for a
round-trip of $10? Would they take it for $30?
number of visitors is already down in the past two years by 30 percent
due to the extended travel time caused by shoaling in Hatteras Inlet.
It is hard to imagine that a ferry toll would boost visitors.
We also question whether tolls would come close to covering the costs of new ferries.
Letchworth, an engineer with Volkert, the group conducting the
passenger ferry feasibility study, conducted a survey for the DOT
in 2012. He had confirmed that his research showed the state would
incur costs to build the infrastructure needed to collect tolls on
untolled ferries and that there would be a decrease in ridership if
tolls were raised.
passenger ferry may increase visitors, but this would not be
implemented until at least 2017 and would be limited to the tourist
is supportive of replacing some of the car ferries with passenger
ferries, which would be a lot cheaper. Getting people to leave their
cars for the day may take some convincing.
free ferry has been part of the Ocracoke fabric, and to add a toll
without an economic impact study could be disastrous for the island.
There are those elsewhere in the state who are adamant against tolling
roads or bridges in their regions as well as Interstate 95. Why? They
say it would hurt local business.
more fundamental argument is whether it is legal -- let alone fair --
to charge residents to come and go to their homes on an island which is
the continuation of a state highway: Highway 12 South extends from Nags
Head, through Hatteras, through Ocracoke Island and then onto Cedar
is not reasonable that money be taken from the $32 million dollar
transportation fund for the 10 counties to pay for ferries. We support
Reps. Tine and Torbett’s efforts to procure funding outside of $32
million yearly allocation.
But time is running out.
who represents Ocracoke, recently announced that he would not seek
reelection and will leave office at the end of 2016. His departure as a
lawmaker will be a big blow to Ocracoke.
hope that he and his Republican colleague co-chair Torbett will be
successful in procuring funds when the Assembly reconvenes in April,
and that the Ferry Division finds sponsors that will help offset these
high replacement costs.