October 25, 2017
Stakeholders Meet to Tackle Plans for the
2018 Ocracoke Express Passenger Ferry
By CATHERINE KOZAK
The Ocracoke Express,
the state’s first high-speed passenger ferry, could provide a different
kind of tourism adventure for Outer Banks visitors by next summer. But
first, it has to be figured out how to divert passengers from long
lines of traffic to board the boat, and then readily get them around
Ocracoke when they disembark.
Adequate parking, public awareness and plenty of good information are
also critical elements to the success of the new ferry service planned
between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
That was the consensus of more than three dozen members of the NC Ferry
Division’s passenger ferry steering committee that met for the first
time last week to work out myriad details of a proposed plan to
supplement vehicle ferry transportation with a passenger ferry from May
“I want to make one thing clear – we want your input,” Jed Dixon, the
deputy director of the NC Ferry Division told the committee, which has
a total membership of 48 stakeholders. “There’s nothing set in stone
Crammed around a table in the meeting room at the Outer Banks Visitors
Bureau office in Manteo, the committee – representing business,
government, tourism and community interests on both islands –listened
to a Ferry Division presentation about the passenger ferry project and
Overall, their response was upbeat and enthusiastic about it being a positive evolution for Outer Banks tourism.
“This has been such a huge project for Hyde County,” said Hyde
County Manager Bill Rich, adding that the county expects to garner $4
million a year in revenue from the passenger ferry. “It’s just big,
big, big . . . great things, I think, are going to happen.”
Hyde County is still working out its plan for operating the four trams
that will be provided to transport passengers around the island on the
8-stop, 3-mile loop, he said.
As everyone on both islands knows, dramatic changes in Hatteras Inlet
in recent years has had a negative impact on ferry travel. A rapid
increase in shoaling started after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and
worsened in subsequent storms. At the same time, the ends of both
islands, especially Hatteras, have eroded. In 1984, the inlet was a ¼
mile wide; in 2016 it was about 2 miles wide.
“It’s changing at a staggering rate,” Dixon said, “and there’s really no sign of the trend changing at all.”
By 2012, ferry traffic had to be rerouted from the former straight-shot
4.3-mile channel to the current U-shaped channel that is 9.5 miles
long. As a consequence, the one-way trip between the Hatteras and
Ocracoke ferry docks takes 60 minutes rather than 40 minutes, and fuel
cost about $250,000 more a month.
And longer trips means less trips. Daily departures on each side have
been cut from about 52 a day to 42 a day, resulting in longer lines of
vehicles waiting to get on a ferry.
About 20 percent of would-be passengers – 61,600 - turn around and
leave, translating to significant business losses on Ocracoke. A
single passenger ferry could meet that demand with four round trips a
day. The $15 round-trip fare would also generate $924,000 in
Dixon said that the original plan for two passenger ferries had to be scaled back because of available funding.
“This kind of gives us a start,” he said.
In response to a question about why passengers can’t buy one-way fare
to encourage overnight stays, Dixon explained that it’s mostly because
long-term parking provisions are not yet available.
So far, the plan calls for about 140 parking spaces in Hatteras
in the vicinity of the ferry docks. Although a survey showed that the
majority of visitors to the island are day-trippers, he said, it is
still an issue that the division plans to address.
If a breakdown made the passenger ferry unavailable, Dixon said
they would be able to walk onto a vehicle ferry and sit in the lounge.
He added that the high-speed ferry is subject to the same limitations
in bad weather as the vehicular ferries.
Joseph Schwarzer, director of the NC Maritime Museums – including the
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum located across from the ferry docks –
said he had concerns about ferry passengers being caught in traffic.
“The point is to alleviate congestion on Hatteras Island,” he said
about the extra ferry. “But it’s not going to.” Schwarzer was
skeptical that a shuttle service could be a solution, since vehicles
can back up long before they reach the stacking lanes. “They can’t get
there,” he said. “You’re going to be stuck trying to get to the
But Dixon expressed confidence that the issue can be addressed with a
combination of good signage, redirecting traffic and shuttles. But he
warned the committee that there will be complications as the new
service gets underway.
“I’ll be completely honest – we’re not going to know all these things
from the start,” he said. “We can’t forward-think everything. But once
we have a problem, we’ve got to identify it and figure out how to fix
For that reason, it would be wise to have a “soft release” and not
promise visitors too much out of the gate, said Chip Stevens, an owner
of Blackbeard’s Lodge on Ocracoke.
“Let them understand that they’re part of making this happen,” he said.
It is important to make the passenger ferry an enjoyable visitor
experience, from parking their car in Hatteras, to enjoying drinks and
snacks on the ferry, to bopping around Ocracoke on the tram, the
The Ocracoke Express – the
name chosen by local school kids – will have a cruising speed of about
30 knots, compared with the average 10-knot speed of vehicular ferries
and will take about 1 hour 5 min each way, dock to dock.
The 24-mile route will bypass the problematic part of the inlet
environment. It will dock at new floating docks in Silver Lake Harbor
and Hatteras Village, and both sides will have new covered passenger
Manufactured by U.S. Workboats, the two-deck aluminum catamaran will
carry 96 passengers and have two wheelchair spaces, bike racks and a
snack bar. The vessel is expected to be delivered to the division on
June 6, followed by testing, trials and training, and should be ready
for operation in mid-summer.
The terminal improvements project had been put out to bid, Dixon said,
but since only one company responded, it must be re-bid. The passenger
ticketing is targeted to be available online by mid-April.
In a later e-mail, Dixon provided a breakdown of the approximate $9
million project costs: passenger ferry, $4.5 million; engineering,
architectural and environmental permitting, $2.1 million; Hatteras and
Ocracoke terminals and docks, $2.3 million and Ocracoke transit,
Of that, $3.6 million was appropriated by the General Assembly and $5.4
million was covered by a Federal Land Access Program grant.
As a bold upgrade in transportation options for tourists, the state
sees opportunity for future partnerships with other coastal areas,
Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas said.
“We want to promote this the best we can,” Thomas said.
To Danny Couch, a committee member who also represents Hatteras Island
on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, the passenger ferry is a
great way to illustrate how “inseparable” the islands and their unique
assets are in Outer Banks identity.
“You’ve got the ability now to maximize what has sold us,” he said. “We’re going to get $2 for our $1 by working together.”
The next bi-monthly meeting of the passenger ferry committee will be held in December.