By CATHERINE KOZAK
Funding has finally been secured for trams that will serve customers on the new passenger ferry in Ocracoke village, with the state agreeing to provide up to one-half the operating costs for four years.
“It’s great news,” Hyde County Manager Bill Rich said at last week’s Passenger Ferry Stakeholders Committee meeting in Manteo. “We are just totally stoked about it.”
Not only has the state promised to pay up to $90,000 for four years, he said, it is buying the trams and giving rather than leasing them to the county.
“It’s a tremendous commitment,” Rich said. “It’s going to make it happen.”
Earlier plans had called for the trams to be accessible to only ferry customers wearing wristbands – an idea with questionable enforcement challenges. But now, as long as there are seats available, anyone in the village will be welcome to hop on.
“It’s a community tram,” Rich said. “That’s what we always wanted.”
Bids, which will be available to private entrepreneurs, will be open until April 10 and will be awarded in May, he said.
Until the county received a letter on March 12 from the director of the state Department of Transportation’s Public Transportation Division, Rich was uncertain about how the trams would be funded. The county had committed to paying $70,000 of the cost from its occupancy tax revenue for the first two years, but had asked the state to pick up the remainder of the estimated $150,000 annual cost.
Rich also shared with the committee the recent news that the Island Inn, built in 1903, will be purchased by the Ocracoke Preservation Society and be turned into a visitor center – a win-win for the community and for tourists. The location would be the third of the eight stops on the tram route.
The two trams will be quiet, non-polluting electric vehicles with 23 seats. Each will pull a trailer that holds another 11 to 16 passengers, depending on if two handicapped seats are occupied. The 30-minute, 3-mile loop will go through the village from the Silver Lake dock to Howard’s Pub, then U-turn, turn right onto Back Road and work its way back to the dock.
Between the two rotating trams, passengers waiting at a stop would be picked up every 15 minutes.
In a later interview, Rich said that the trams will also be available for the county to use on Ocracoke when the passenger service is not in use.
But even when the passenger ferry is running, he added, the trams will be a nice way for visitors to go, for example, from their motel to the pub to have lunch and do some shopping, or for islanders to go from the school to meet a friend for dinner. And as long as the county meets its obligation to take ferry passengers in season between the hours of 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., the community can take good advantage of the tram service
“It’s a beautiful way to transport people around the village,” Rich said. “I can see it being used for just about anything we need it for.”
The county has yet to determine where the re-charging station will be, he said. The trams, which each cost $175,000, are expected to hold a charge for about five to six hours. The most likely choice for recharging will be at the new EMS building, which is planned to be built with pre-fab construction on land the county will purchase across the street from the Island Inn. Another option may be by the National Park Service Visitor Center.
If the trams are parked inside when not in use, they can last about 10 years, Rich said. But their batteries have a much shorter lifespan.
The Ocracoke Express, the state’s first high-speed passenger ferry, is expected to be ready for service in mid-July. According to an update from shipbuilder U.S. Boatworks in Hubert, N.C., the aluminum pontoon hull is about 70 percent assembled.
With 96 interior seats, 26 seats on the upper deck, and accommodations for two wheelchairs and 16 bicycles, the catamaran-style ferry will travel 70 minutes each way between the Hatteras Ferry Docks in Hatteras village to Silver Lake
Harbor in Ocracoke village. Round-trips tickets will cost $15, and passengers will have access to wireless internet service and a concession area.
At the beginning of the meeting, NC Ferry Division deputy director Jed Dixon talked about the positive feedback he has received about the $9 million project at industry and tourism-related events. There has also been good coverage of the new ferry service in the media.
Project Manager Ed Timoney said that the passenger ferry would depart from Hatteras at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m, 5 p.m and 8:30 p.m, with a 15-minute lay over built in to the schedule. From the Ocracoke side, it would depart at 11:45 a.m., 3:15 p.m., 6:45 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. So far, the expectation is about 60,000 total passengers for the season.
“We’re looking at all aspects of ridership,” he said. “The metrics are still being worked out.”
Elaborating, Dixon said that one important metric will be customer satisfaction. The Ferry Division, he said, plans to expand beyond its Facebook page that it currently relies on for feedback. The division intends to develop a mobile “app” for
the reservation system and social media. Eventually, the reservation system will be like going to an online store, he said. Plans include providing a ticket with a bar code, similar to the option airline customers have, that would allow passengers to go directly to the boarding area.
Greer Beaty, NCDOT deputy secretary for communications, said that full-bore promotion of the new ferry to target audiences can happen only after the launch date is nailed down.
“You want the first people to get on the boat to think it’s the best thing since sliced bread,” she told the committee. “The greatest thing about (free media coverage) is that it is a third-party validation on everything you know. It has a stronger connection to the reader . . . That is a validation that is stronger than what we pay for.”
Several committee members cautioned that it is also important to coordinate with the local community to get information to passengers about Ocracoke’s attractions and activities.
“It’s one thing to think about taking the ferry,” said Dave Hallac, superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. “The next thing is – then what?”
But the committee agreed that it was critical to get the word out as much as possible about the passenger ferry.
Suggestions included giving information to people in line for vehicle ferries and to folks who visit Ocracoke in the shoulder seasons, as well as asking people who look online for Outer Banks information to opt-in for passenger ferry news and updates.
Update rack cards will soon be available that will help visitors decide whether the vehicle ferry or the passenger ferry would be the best fit for their plans. (For instance: Do you have a lot of stuff to take to the beach? Vehicle ferry. Do you just want to stroll around the village shops and enjoy the harbor view while eating lunch? Passenger ferry.) Another impetus is not spending precious vacation time waiting in lines, since the passenger ferry can be reserved.
Meanwhile, the more people in the community who talk up the passenger ferry to as many folks as possible, the better chance of success it will have, Beaty said.
“I think it’s important for the business community,” she said. “The greatest tool you have is word of mouth. They already trust you.”
The next stakeholders committee meeting will be held on May 18.