Three state representatives who visited Ocracoke on Friday, April 26, pledged to do all they can to find an alternative to tolls on all North Carolina ferries.
The visitors were Paul Tine, a Democrat of Kitty Hawk, who represents Dare, Hyde, Beaufort and Washington counties; Charles Jeter, a Republican of Mecklenberg County, and John A. Torbett, a Republican of Gaston County and co-chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation.
They were part of a contingent that traveled from Raleigh Thursday to visit the coast for a first-hand look at what tolling and raising tolls would mean to its citizens.
“We are trying to explore every available option to tolling ferries in North Carolina,” Torbett said during a town meeting Friday morning in the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. “Revenue from advertising is the same as tolling. I want to be able to get (the Senate) off (the idea of tolling).”
Jeter, for whom this was a first visit east of I-95, is a co-sponsor with Tine of the “Ferry Tolling Alternatives,” House Bill 475, which proposes that the legislature generate the $5 million they want from the ferry system through advertising. Riding the ferry was a new experience, too, for Torbett and his wife, Viddia, who accompanied him and who is his legislative aide.
The three, along with Tine, spoke with the ferry workers and got a tour of the pilot house as the full moon emerged from the days-long cloud cover and lit up the channel.
Along the way to Ocracoke village, the group stopped at the S-curves along Highway 12 in northern Rodanthe where the ocean had breached a few weeks ago to view how close the ocean was to the road.
Before the Friday morning town meeting, the three representatives met a dozen islanders at breakfast in the Berkley Manor.
Then, they and about 50 islanders and Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas and Deputy Division Director Jed Dixon met in the NCCAT meeting room where they viewed a PowerPoint presentation that covered a bit of island history and the unique aspects of an island accessible only by ferry. It also covered recent problems with the Hatteras ferry and the compromised Highway 12 in the last two hurricane seasons.
Tine invited all the attendees to introduce themselves. They included business owners, fishermen, and school and county officials.
He told the assembled group that the larger issue is an overall policy issue.
“If we’re going to toll, then we need to toll elsewhere, too,” he said. “But we can’t solve all of our transportation issues with tolls. We shouldn’t tax the most economically challenged part of the state.”
Jeter, who is the vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, said he thought that the current tolling situation was inherently unfair and that this idea to sell advertising was a tool he was giving us.
“You’re going to have to use it,” he said. “What we’re talking about is commercializing the ferry system. Y’all gotta make sure this is something you want to do. If y’all are comfortable with it, I’ll work my butt off for it.”
Torbett, after agreeing that he didn’t understand why tolling the ferries was such a big deal if the entire Transportation Department budget had a surplus and could absorb it, explained that House Bill 157 would prohibit any governor from ever taking money from the transportation fund and using it for another budget priority.
“The real answer is the juice ain’t worth the squeeze,” he said to applause. “Let’s just leave it alone.”
Torbett said that Thomas and Dixon are looking at ways to streamline the Ferry Division budget to help realize more savings.
After a short tour of the island in a Hyde County Transit bus and lunch, the legislators, along with Joe and Henri McClees, the lobbyists hired by Hyde, Beaufort and Pamlico counties to fight the ferry tolls, the group left on the Cedar Island ferry where they continued their tour of the coast.
The McCleeses organized the trip and said they hope to bring more legislators to the island.
“My job is to create champions in Raleigh for you and they’re in this room,” Joe McClees told the group in NCCAT.
“They left here with a clear concept of what this community is and what we’re faced with, and they said that,” noted Darlene Styron-Doshier, owner of the Sweet Tooth and an organizer of the trip.
Rudy Austin, president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, who wasn’t able to attend but heard feedback, said that Jeter and Torbett got a handle on what the infrastructure means to the Outer Banks.
“We hope they have a better understanding of our situation,” he said.
Ocracoke islanders face battles on three fronts this legislative term. The first is to persuade the legislature to vote “yes” on twin bills calling for the elimination of all tolls on all ferries.
These bills are both called “Ferry Tolling Alternatives,” and the Senate bill is sponsored by Bill Cook, who was scheduled to join Tine, Jeter and Torbett on the Oriental leg of the trip.
In a counter move, Sens. Kathy Harrington of Gastonia, who co-chairs the Senate Transportation committee, and Bill Rabon of Southport introduced “Uniform Ferry Tolling,” SB 660, which calls for tolls on all the ferries.
On another front that will hurt Ocracoke economically, House Bill 983, “2013 Fisheries and Economic Development Act,” would designate red drum, striped bass and speckled trout as a gamefish catchable only by hook-and-line. It would prevent the 35 local commercial fishermen to catch these species, which are then sold to local restaurants and to the public at the Ocracoke Seafood Company.
If this bill is passed, it will seriously impact Ocracoke commercial fishermen and the Fish House.
What makes this bill tricky is the third section of it, which calls for the allocation of money from the Highway Fund to shallow draft dredging, including Hatteras Inlet and Silver Lake.
The three legislators took time on Friday to visit the Fish House and talk to some of the commercial fishermen.
Islanders and visitors can make their opinions heard by emailing the legislators, whose addresses and e-mails are listed at www.ncleg.net.