Passenger ferries look to be in Ocracoke’s near future, now that the governor has signed the state budget with $3.65 million included to build new fast ferries and the infrastructure needed to operate them between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
But many questions remain in the community about whether the service, which would charge $15 round-trip per passenger, is a realistic answer to persistent challenges with ferry traffic and the associated decrease in tourism to the island.
“I think people are skeptical of it,” said Darlene Styron, owner of Sweet Tooth and Fig Tree Bakery & Deli and a member of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association.
A passenger ferry feasibility study released late last month by the state Department of Transportation recommended adding two 100-passenger fast ferries to the current ferry fleet that transports vehicles and millions of visitors a year between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
A total of seven sound-class and ocean-class ferries are currently operating in Hatteras Inlet, which has been increasingly plagued with shoaling. There will be no decrease in the number of vehicular ferries.
The report concluded that restoring the former, shorter ferry route would not be feasible.
The state budget provides an additional $10 million for the state Ferry Division, including $6 million in nonrecurring funds for infrastructure and ferry refurbishment.
There is a lot to be happy about in the ferry budget for Ocracoke islanders, said Hyde County Manager Bill Rich, a county native who lives on the island. The proposed tolling of the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry is off the table, and it is unlikely to come up again in the future because it is now baked into law. The state, however, will be able to raise existing tolls if it chooses.
But the “game changer” for the island, Rich said, is the funding for the passenger ferry service.
“It’s exactly what we need to return to levels they used to be and also to eliminate horrible traffic with our day-trippers,” said Hyde County Manager Bill Rich.
Rich, who is a member of the Albemarle Rural Planning Organization working on transportation solutions, said that an earlier suggestion he had made at a community meeting about having four passenger ferries and four vehicle ferries was proposed as a way to avert the need to toll the Hatteras ferry — but that is now a moot point.
The new ferries, with lighter draft, would transport passengers on the one-hour trip from Hatteras directly to the village at Silver Lake, rather than the existing terminal on the north end of the island.
“Not only does it take care of a problem, it creates a tourist attraction,” Rich said.
The National Park Service has agreed to share parking on its land by the Hatteras ferry docks and the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. If all goes as planned, the first passenger ferry could be running in about a year and a half, Rich said.
Rich said it could even encourage Dare County to “get on-board” with a transit system that connects Nags Head to the ferry.
“I think that will happen,” he said. “It may be in baby steps.”
The idea is with a unified public transportation system for passengers, it could create a new visitor experience. “It makes it a tourist adventure,” Rich said.
Once people arrive at Silver Lake, they will be able to rent golf carts, a jeep or bicycles, or board one of three trams that will be going on a regular loop with about 10 designated stops through the village. There will also be a trolley bus available to take people to the Pony Pens, the beach or even as far as the north ferry terminal.
The trams, which would be free — at least initially — and available to anyone would hold a total of about 30 people.
Golf carts are allowed to go anywhere in the village, as far as Howard’s Pub. The carts have been used on the island since 2006, and Rich said there have been minimal problems with them. About 200 carts are currently rented out by three operations, he said.
The passenger ferries will run, at least to start, only in the summer months. There has been discussion about moving the vessels to the Inner Banks in the off-season between Labor Day and Memorial Day to provide day trips.
“These are ocean-going catamaran-style boats,” Rich said. “They’re a very safe ride – you can go in any weather.”
The vessels will have theater-style seating with snack areas, although alcohol will not be served because they are state-owned. Each requires two workers to run, versus seven needed on vehicle ferries. Passengers will be able to walk on with their luggage and keep it in a dry storage area. There will also be an area to put bicycles.
“The biggest challenge will be getting up and around in a way that won’t be more congested than it is now,” he said.
The study shows that ridership would be expected to steadily increase, he said, but what they don’t know is if there would be less ridership than now. The goal is to make up the 25 percent loss of visitation since 2010.
But Rich said he has also heard concerns that the service will bring too many people, and overwhelm businesses and infrastructure.
“You know, we can’t widen the streets,” he said. “You have golf carts, bikes, vehicles, people walking in both directions,” he said. “We just have to do a better job with signage.”
A bike path that stretches from the end of the village to the campground will be extended eight miles more to the ferry docks. Infrastructure improvements will be made at Hatteras and Ocracoke docks — the new ferries require floating docks. About 150 additional parking spaces will be constructed in Hatteras, adding to 120 existing spaces available currently for employees and passengers.
“Whenever there’s an entrepreneurial opportunity on Ocracoke, somebody fills it,” Rich said. “I think the community will gear up for it – I think there will be a lot of good things that we’re not even aware of yet.
“There’s a romance to this island,” he added, “and to me, passenger ferries only add to it.”
But the county manager emphasized there is no plan whatsoever to eliminate vehicles on the island, a major worry of the island’s 918 year-round residents and the merchants. But he understands why the community, especially old-timers, who have heard too many broken promises, are opposed to the changes.
Tourism provides 60 percent of Hyde County’s tax revenue, and supports nearly every business on the island.
“At the end of the day,” Rich said, “everyone has to ask, ‘What’s the alternative?’”
Mickey Baker, co-owner of Mermaid’s Folly, said that her business is down 40 percent since Hurricane Sandy, and the biggest reason is the ferry service.
“There are some people who have had to close,” Baker said. And business owners can’t afford as much staff. “It’s really been really hard. The season is getting shorter, and we’re working double-time to try to handle the business here.”
But what is worrisome is not just the longer trip and the long lines at the docks; it’s also the sorry condition of the vessels.
“I just got off a ferry, and it sounded like the African Queen,” she said. “I think in 2016, we should put more money into them and make them better and swifter and safer.”
Rich said there is now funding in the state budget to not only replace ferries, but to also refurbish older ferries.
Day trippers are the bulk of the summer business, Baker said, and now they’ve been arriving on the island as late as 4 p.m. because of the long lines. But there are doubts that adding passenger ferries to the mix is going to help. For instance, there are still not enough public restrooms on the island, let alone transportation infrastructure.
“They think that people are going to leave their cars with all their belongings on Hatteras – I think that’s a gamble,” Baker said.
But no one is clear about what is going on, especially since a community meeting with the Ferry Division was cancelled earlier this month. The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 8.
“We feel like we’re in the dark, that we’re going to be turned into Portsmouth Island,” Baker said. “To me, they’re putting the horse before the cart.”
PASSENGER FERRY FACTS
The passenger ferry plans includes:
Two approximately 100-passenger ferries capable of cruising at approximately 25 knots.
Using Rollinson Channel to access the Pamlico Sound and Big Foot Slough to access Silver Lake.
Eight round trips per day with the first departure from Hatteras at 8 a.m. with the last departure from Ocracoke at 8:30 p.m. May through September.
A $15 round trip fare per passenger. Online and application-based ticketing.
Construction of an open-sided terminal immediately adjacent to the existing Hatteras Terminal.
Parking and passenger drop off in the existing lot adjacent to the Hatteras Terminal. Additional parking located in the existing Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum parking or in a newly constructed lot adjacent to this facility with shuttle service to the Hatteras Terminal.
A system of signage, including a variable message sign, at the approach to the Hatteras Terminal.
A floating platform that allows for berthing of two vessels and side loading/unloading at Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Ocracoke docking immediately adjacent to the existing sound-class ferry docks. A temporary terminal located immediately adjacent to the National Park Service Ocracoke Visitors Center.
A permanent terminal in this same location that will accommodate the Ferry Division, NPS, and Hyde County.
A comprehensive signing package to disperse passengers from the Ocracoke Terminal.
A loop transit system on Ocracoke with 20-30 minute headways.
An LTV transit system to connect the Ocracoke Terminal with the South Dock terminal and provide access to attractions outside of Ocracoke village.
Pedestrian improvements in the curve along Highway 12 just south of Water Plant Road
Coordination with local businesses to provide golf cart and bicycle rental.
A full copy of the Passenger Ferry Feasibility Study is on the NCDOT website.