The specter of tolls on the Hatteras-Ocracoke route is again rearing its head.
In December, the N.C. Board of Transportation adopted a resolution in response to a law passed in the General Assembly last year that authorizes the state DOT to “prescribe and collect tolls on the ferry routes.”
The resolution requires the DOT to establish a methodology for the setting of tolls and instructs that prior to establishing tolls on any untolled ferry route, the department have public hearings in the geographic areas of the those routes.
A hearing on this proposal is scheduled on Ocracoke for early in February, said Malcolm Fearing, a Dare County resident who is a member of the DOT Board of Transportation. As of this afternoon, the date for a hearing had not yet been announced.
Although The Island Free Press has not seen a copy of the methodology, Bill Rich, Hyde County manager, who said Fearing and two other DOT officials met with him two weeks ago, explained that the proposal is for $7 each way on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry route as well as the other currently untolled ferry route at Knotts Island in Currituck County.
In addition, a yearly commuter pass for $200 would cover all trips on all three ferries out of Ocracoke – Hatteras Inlet and the two ferries to the mainland. Rich said the methodology exempts school buses and county vehicles but not vendors.
Rich said this proposal has not yet been presented to the local Regional Planning Organization, which is supposed to make recommendations for allocating the $32 million in funds to cover all the transportation needs in its 10-county region, which includes Hyde, Dare, and Currituck counties among others.
“House Bill 817 passed by the General Assembly last year requires us to establish a methodology of tolling for all untolled routes,” noted Fearing in an interview Tuesday. He said the proposal has been given to the RPO but it has not yet been approved.
The quest for ferry tolls is because of the legislative mandate still on the books for the Ferry Division to come up with $5 million the state legislature has wanted to recoup from the division’s budget since 2012.
Also last year, the state legislature revamped the transportation allocation system, effectively flipping the decision on raising or enacting tolls to local control via several Regional Planning Organizations (RPOs) created throughout the state.
Legislation gave each RPO a pot of money from which to handle costs of all transportation needs in their respective districts, including roads, rail, bike trails, bridges, and ferries. Hyde and Dare County are part of the Albemarle Commission, a non-profit based in Elizabeth City. Within this organization is the RPO that handles the transportation planning for the 14 counties in this region.
This RPO has a budget of about $32 million to work with for all these transportation needs, including new ferries.
Since the mandate to find revenue to cover the $5 million shortfall is still active, the DOT’s idea is that the simplest is enacting tolls on the now untolled routes.
“If we don’t enact a toll for the ferries, (the $5 million) will have to come from somewhere else,” Fearing said.
But state Rep. Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk said Tuesday he is pushing for that “somewhere else.”
While the DOT resolution and methodology has not yet been approved by the local RPO, Tine explained that the $5 million or so the General Assembly wants is for capital improvement costs, or, a funding pool for new ferries over the next 20 years.
He also explained that there are three pots of transportation money in play — a state pot, four regional pots, and 14 division pots. The $32 million for our area is in the division pot and Tine is pushing to have the ferry capital improvements money come out of a regional pot that has more money available to compete for.
In any event, the tolling of the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry would not help the already hurting Ocracoke economy, said Rudy Austin, president of the Ocracoke civic and Business Association.
Ocracoke has seen a loss of traffic since the National Park Service enacted permits to drive on the beach, not to mention suspension of ferries because of shoaling issues in Hatteras Inlet, problems with Highway 12 from the last two hurricanes and a government shutdown for almost two weeks in October.
“Eighty percent of the customers in our shops are day trippers,” he said. “They’d lose 20 percent of their revenue if day trippers drop off.”
This would translate to decreased tax revenues for Hyde County as well.
“If they toll the Hatteras Ferry, we will be the only people in North Carolina who have to pay to go home,” Austin said.
But Fearing said he is looking into getting federal mass transit dollars to help pay for or subsidize Ocracoke and Knotts Island residents’ fees, which the methodology allows.
Tine also said the legislature is still seeking advertising and concessions on the ferries to help contribute to this $5 million.
“We have a request-for-proposal out there for selling advertising space on the ferries,” Tine said. “It’s not going as well as I’d like, but we’re still working on it.”
Rich is hopeful that among island residents and Joe and Henri McClees, the lobbyists hired by Hyde and other counties to fight the ferry tolls, that the island will prevail again.
After all, the $5 million is “chump change” compared to the $1 billion plus of the entire DOT budget.
“We found a way to win this twice now,” Rich said. “We need to find a third way.”