As North Carolina’s first high-speed passenger
ferry is coming together nicely at the shipbuilder’s shop, plans are
still evolving for transporting people once they land.
Ocracoke Express is targeted to be in the water by mid-summer,
supplementing service on the state Department of Transportation Ferry
Division’s busiest vehicular ferry route between Ocracoke and Hatteras
islands. But Hyde County is struggling with the cost of free tram
service for passengers disembarking at Silver Lake harbor in Ocracoke
“Transit was never of the belief that they would have
to find the funds to operate the tram,” said Bill Rich, the county
manager, referring to Hyde’s public transportation shuttle. “It was
late in the game when everything switched.”
Rich said that
initially the costs for operating the tram and construction of shelters
would have been covered by a grant, but somewhere in the planning
process those funds disappeared. Since then, he said, the county has
come up with a total commitment of $70,000 in occupancy tax revenue to
help get the project started for the first two years. Rich said he has
requested that the state pick up the remainder of the $150,000
estimated annual cost, but he has not yet received a response.
“Believe me, it was never confrontational,” he said. “Everybody was always working on this together.”
to upgrade ferry terminals and docks, a $1.45 million contract awarded
to Williamston-based contractor A.R. Chesson Construction, began last
week and is expected to be completed in late May. Improvements include
construction of passenger shelters, new and upgraded parking lots, tram
loading lanes and an additional sewer connection. The floating docks
and gangways for the passenger ferry are being bid separately.
National Park Service, owner of the land, has been a cooperative
partner in the $9 million passenger ferry project, including planning
for the tram, Rich said.
But he said it took numerous meetings
in the last year with the Ocracoke community to tweak the tram service
to better meet the needs of businesses and tourists. The vehicles are
“like 15-passenger golf carts,” Rich said, that can go up to 15 mph.
agreed that it made sense to not charge a fee for the tram; there was
disagreement over whether it should be available for anyone, including
school children, standing at one of the 10 stops to hop on.
much discussion, Rich said, it was decided that, for safety reasons,
the tram should not go down Lighthouse Road, and instead it should drop
passengers at the corner to make the short walk to the Ocracoke
Lighthouse. The tram should also not plan to go to the beach. And only
ferry passengers wearing a wristband would be allowed on the tram.
eight-stop, 3-mile route, as it’s set now, would travel from the Silver
Lake dock through the village and down the highway to Howard’s Pub,
where it would make a U-turn and then take a right onto Back Road,
stopping at a restaurant, a coffee shop, the library and a gourmet wine
and microbrew market. The tram would also make three stops in the
village. All the stops are timed to the vehicle traveling at 11 mph and
are designed with road pull-offs.
Already, several people are
planning to offer additional transportation choices, including bicycle
and golf cart rentals and shuttle service to the lifeguard beach and
“To me, the only obstacle out there is funding the tram,” Rich said. “The entrepreneurship always comes out on Ocracoke.”
a meeting of the ferry stakeholders committee in Manteo on Jan. 26,
assistant ferry director Jed Dixon showed a photograph of the $4.5
million ferry’s hull under construction by contractor U.S. Workboats,
formerly Armstrong Marine, at its shipyard near Swansboro, and
presented a time-lapse video of a trial run of a similar ferry taking
the 24-mile route through Hatteras Inlet (see below).
along at about 30 knots – versus the average 10 knots of vehicular
ferries – the Ocracoke Express will take about 65 minutes each way. The
two-deck aluminum catamaran holds 96 passengers and includes spaces for
wheelchairs and bicycles. Currently, fare for a round-trip ticket
is proposed at $15.
Dixon said that he and other Ferry Division
officials recently visited Bald Head Island to learn more about that
passenger ferry system, which is in the process of being transferred
from a private operator to a public authority.
Bald Head Island
LLC has run the 3-mile route from Southport to Bald Head Island for 34
years. In 2016, the round trip fare was $22.
Dixon, who has been appointed to the new authority, said there are plans to visit Bald Head again on Feb. 15.
its vessel is different than the Ocracoke Express, there are numerous
similarities that could be of value to the Outer Banks, he said.
run a passenger-only ferry,” he said. “They do 300,000 people a year.
They have four boats, run two at a time. The business is very seasonal
– summer months – and it’s a tourist destination accessible only by
Meanwhile, the Ocracoke Express is a little behind
schedule, Dixon said, with delivery expected in mid-July rather than
early June, as first expected.
“homework” to the members, Dixon asked them to come back to the next
meeting, scheduled for March 23, with a list of things to accomplish.
the success of this project is going to be determined by what everybody
puts into it,” he told the panel. “Look and see how you can contribute.”
Stallings, a longtime visitor who lives in Rocky Mount, said that he
has found that many people on the island either don’t know what is
planned or are misinformed about the project.
that an important part of the project is getting accurate and updated
information to the public so they know what to expect. An online
reservation and ticketing system for the passenger ferry service is
being developed by IT professionals at N.C. Web Applications.
think it’s really, really important that we start out on a good foot,”
he said. “We’ve got to make sure that things are in place. We’ve got to
feel good about what we’re doing.”
In a later interview,
Stallings said that he has launched a business, OBX Rentals &
Shuttle Services, to take ferry passengers and others to the beach. The
“affordable” service is to be available starting on Easter weekend,
when he will be living on the island full time.
would serve different populations of visitors by transporting them from
anywhere on the island to where they want to go on the beach. For
instance, the lifeguarded beach is a half-mile from the village and the
pony pens are 3 miles away. He will also have beach gear – tents,
coolers, games, chairs, umbrellas – available to rent, and provide
setup if desired. People could make a reservation on his Facebook page
or website or call as needed.
Stallings, who owns a ceramic tile
installation business and a travel baseball tournament company, said
that even before the passenger ferry became a reality, he was inspired
by watching people struggle to take all their beach gear from their
vehicles parked along the highway to the beach.
“I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “It’s not fun.”
Pahl, a Hyde County commissioner who represents Ocracoke Island, said
that many islanders have come around to giving the passenger ferry its
“There certainly is skepticism,” he told the committee, “but it absolutely isn’t universal.”
are concerned about negative effects the passenger ferry could have on
the island. For instance, will food and drink served on the ferry snack
bar cut down on island restaurant customers?
“The idea is, from
our perspective, to promote our businesses and to make that
successful,” said Pahl, who has been a full-time island resident for 15
years. “We don’t want to undermine that.”
For that reason, the
business community did not want the tram to be seen as a negative in
the village. A show of islanders’ support, he said, is the willingness
of the businesses to put the occupancy tax revenue into the tram.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, he added, Ocracokers know how to rise to a challenge.
we have a lot of confidence in the entrepreneurial spirit of the people
of Ocracoke,” Pahl said. “I think we all recognize that this all is a
trial run and there’s going to be a learning curve, and I think we just
have to be kind of patient with this process.”