If Hatteras and Ocracoke islanders are feeling under siege this winter, they have plenty of good reasons for it.
The winter weather has been relentless. There have been too many days when the high temperature did not get to our normal low for late January of about 39 degrees. The wind has blown, and blown, and blown ? from the northwest, from the southwest, and everywhere in between.
The Republican-controlled state government enacted new unemployment rules last year that have our island work force, which makes the economy hum in the tourist season, struggle to get by on reduced unemployment checks for a shorter amount of time. Most of the islands? work force is seasonally employed.
The outside environmental groups that are holding up a replacement for our aging Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet have been relentless in their efforts to stall the project in state and federal courts. And these groups could still take legal action to hold up two Department of Transportation projects to bridge breaches on Pea Island and north Rodanthe.
There is apparently a problem with the planned emergency beach nourishment at the S-curves north of Rodanthe ? a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Bids have come in much higher than anticipated, and the nourishment, which was supposed to happen in the summer, then the fall, then this winter, will be delayed again. According to DOT, the Army Corps will put the project back out for bids, hoping that competition will bring down the cost.
And, finally, tolling free ferries is back and will probably happen this time ? again thanks to our friends in Raleigh, who apparently don?t understand or don?t care how sensitive this issue is for our islands and its residents.
Residents ? workers and business owners, especially ? are feeling very nervous about the future.
We managed to barely escape tolling the free Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry last year, but the chances of doing it again are slim.
?I expect we will see the ferry tolls,? Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, said this week.
An appropriations bill passed by the General Assembly last year established that paying for new ferries will in the future come out of ferry tolls.
The DOT Board of Transportation, a group of 19 men and women from across the state who are appointed to oversee the DOT, asked the staff to come up with an income number needed per year over a 20-year period to replace ferries, which cost about $16 million each. They came up with $5 million needed from tolling per year.
This is all part of the new transportation funding formula implemented statewide last year called the Strategic Transportation Initiative, which divided the state into several districts and gave those districts a pot of money from which to fund roads, rail, bike trails and ferries. A percentage of the money is split equally among the districts and part of it is based on the area?s population, which puts rural and less populated areas such as Hatteras and Ocracoke at a disadvantage.
A $7 per-car price is what DOT is recommending. Vehicles 20- to 40-feet would pay $14 and those over 40 feet would pay $28. The tolling scenario can be viewed online at http://www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/Proposed_Ferry_Toll_Rates.pdf.
DOT has now set public hearings on the methodology to fund ferry replacement and after the hearings, it will go to the respective Regional Planning Organizations (RPOs) to approve it.
Dare and Hyde counties are in the District 1 RPO, which includes 13 counties. Dare and Hyde oppose the tolling, as does Currituck because the Knotts Island ferry would also cease to be free. However, the other 10 counties are probably not motivated to keep the ferries free because if the RPO does not institute tolls, the cost of replacing ferries will come out of the shrinking pot of money the counties will share for all transportation projects.
A $7 toll each way will have an impact on the day visitors to Ocracoke Island, who from the north, pass through Hatteras on their way to and from the ferry docks. And, make no mistake, it will have an impact on the economy of both islands.
And reduced sales and occupancy taxes will also have an impact on the economies of Dare and Hyde counties and eventually the state coffers.
Residents, and presumably vendors and suppliers, will be able to buy an annual pass on all three ferries to and from Ocracoke at $75 for a pedestrian, $200 for vehicles less than 20 feet, and up to $300 for vehicles 40 feet or more.
However, the question remains ? Is it fair to charge residents a fee to travel to and from their home when there is no alternative transportation, such as a road or a bridge? Who else in the state has a similar situation?
And despite the efforts of the Republican-controlled legislature to cut taxes on businesses, the cost of buying an annual pass to deliver goods and services to Ocracoke is just that ? another tax on the cost of doing business.
On another subject, the Citizens? Committee to Replace the Bonner Bridge had a meeting this week to talk about how to deal with the roadblocks to moving the project forward.
Warren Judge, who attended the meeting, said that he had a meeting with Derb Carter, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, between Christmas and New Year?s. SELC represents Defenders of Wildlife and the National Wildlife Refuge Association in the lawsuits to stop the Bonner Bridge replacement.
Judge said in a phone interview after the meeting that Carter sent him an e-mail the day after Christmas requesting the meeting, which happened a few days later. Judge and county manager and attorney Bobby Outten, he said, met with Carter for about an hour.
?We talked and got nowhere,? Judge said.
Judge also said that Carter floated the idea of a 7-mile bridge from north of Pea Island Inlet to Rodanthe, with a spur with a roadbed off of it ? presumably on the north end ? and the short bridge over Oregon Inlet, also with a spur off of it ? presumably headed south. The idea being that the two spurs could eventually be connected to form the long bridge over Pamlico Sound. Judge noted that Carter made it clear that he was not authorized by his clients to offer this rather unusual alternative.
Judge said there was no indication that the environmental groups will drop their lawsuits against the project.
?I really don?t know what motivates the man,? he said.
Perhaps Carter is just doing his job, but Judge said he didn?t understand how ?you can do a job that is so hurtful to people.?
He added that holding up a safe transportation corridor on and off the island hurts most the people who most need the highway ? for medical care or for being in touch with elderly parents.
There are still some who are surprised that SELC, on behalf of its clients, has not yet sued to stop the planned 2-plus mile bridge over Pea Island Inlet. DOT issued a record of decision on that bridge last October and awarded the contract late last year. Work is underway on the replacement.
However, SELC and friends have until April to file a lawsuit to stop it.
Perhaps, they are waiting on a record of decision on the 2-plus mile bridge alternative over the breach at the S-curves, so they can sue on both projects at the same time.