by Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke islanders and visitors have geared up for another ferry toll fight this spring.
Eliminate all tolls on ferries in North Carolina is the new rallying cry for Ocracoke and other coastal areas with ferries, but it will be a tough fight as many new legislators are not familiar with the coast.
In 2011, the state legislature proposed to raise $5 million in revenue, up from $2 million, from the NC Department of Transportation Ferry Division budget. That year, the Legislature agreed to no tolls on the Hatteras and Knotts Island ferries in exchange for raising tolls on other ferries.
But in 2012, former Gov. Bev Perdue ordered a one-year moratorium on this action. The moratorium expired in January and the Legislature adopted a new resolution directing the Ferry Division to establish ferry tolls.
The NCDOT again held several hearings recently along the coast about its recommended revenue plan. This plan would raise fees on the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries by more than twice the current price, including a $5 fee for all passengers.
On a positive note, several state House and Senate members are drafting legislation calling for the elimination of all tolls on the ferries and raising new revenue through other means. At press time, these bills had not been introduced.
No legislators attended any of the hearings, but on Ocracoke close to 200 people attended the March hearing and overwhelmingly spoke against having any ferry tolls at all and the need to look at the ferries as an asset, not a burden.
“We are against all ferry taxes—period,” said Henri McClees, of the Joe and Henri McClees team of lobbyists hired by Hyde, Beaufort and Pamlico counties to represent the coast in Raleigh. “The legislature is the problem and the legislature is the solution. You need to bombard them with emails that we will not tolerate this.”
The lobbyists have asked that the emails begin after the bills are introduced so that legislators have something specific to refer to. Islanders and visitors can get updated details on the plan and issue at several websites: the Hyde County website: www. hydecountync.gov, the OCBA website: www.ocracokevillage. com, and the Ocracoke Current, www.ocracokecurrent.com.
“When I grew up there was no ferry,” said Rudy Austin, president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, who noted that many who grew up here several decades ago had to go off the island to get jobs. “The ferry has enabled us to have the community we have here.”
Ridership has gone down drastically in recent years, added Jerry Gaskill of Cedar Island, who is a former director of the Ferry Division. “The money it takes to collect the tolls would be better used for advertising for tourists. If we continue to raise tolls, we won’t have anything here.”
The engineer who conducted a survey last year for the DOT, Will Letchworth of CDM Smith, Raleigh, attended the meeting and confirmed that his research showed that the state would incur costs to build the infrastructure needed to collect tolls on untolled ferries and that there would be a decrease in ridership if tolls were raised.
But beleaguered Ocracoke islanders face attacks from other directions. Mother Nature wrought more havoc this winter on Highway 12 at the S-curves where the ocean over washed the road after the DOT placed sandbags there after Superstorm Sandy in October. Fortunately, the bags have held back the ocean but some sand may still be on the road. Updates on this can be found at the Facebook page: ncdot NC 12.
Newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory recently declared that section of Highway 12 in a state of emergency, which has authorized the DOT conduct beach nourishment to protect the highway in the short term.
The pipeline dredge is still working in the Hatteras Inlet channel and is expected to finish mid-April. Until then, the NC Ferry Division is using an alternate route between the islands that takes about an hour, and the ferry schedules have changed until the regular ferry can resume. Updates on the schedules can be found at www.ncdot.org/ ferry.