by Connie Leinbach
While the good news from Raleigh recently is that legislators have left the ferry tolls status quo, the word from officials is that Ocracoke islanders will still need to be vigilant about the ferry system.
“The game has changed and the rules have changed,” noted S. Henri McClees, one of a team of two lobbyists hired by Hyde, Beaufort and Pamlico counties to fight ferry tolls. Decisions on ferry boats and tolls will be made by a regional planning organization (RPO), which will be allotted money for local transportation needs.
The Budget Bill #402 contains a new funding plan for transportation via three pots of money: one for statewide strategic planning (40 percent), that is, for interstate highways; one for regional divisions, or the RPOs (30 percent), and the third one (30 percent) divided among different divisions in the transportation department.
“The RPOs need to be the focus now,” said Rep. Paul Tine of Kitty Hawk, who helped retain the ferry tolling status quo, along with Representatives John Torbett, and Charles Jeter, both of the Charlotte area, who traveled to Ocracoke in April for a first-hand look at the island.
Tine said this new bill takes the ferry tolling question out of the Legislature’s hands and into the hands of the people who care rather than with representatives from the western part of the state who don’t care about the ferry system.
According to this new protocol, the local RPO could decide to raise or lower ferry tolls and/or seek advertising revenues as income.
“If they did either of these, that revenue would go to offset replacing ferry boats,” Tine said. “Raising ferry tolls (to pay for new ferries) will be in the hands of the RPO.”
Which is why locals still must be vigilant so that the RPO plans for the replacement of new ferries by finding new revenue and saving it, McClees said.
“Local people need to be on top of this process,” she continued. “Citizens and commissioners will have to take a fresh and vigorous look at these RPOs and the people who are on them. Hyde County is going to have to speak up to get attention.”
Hyde County is part of the Albemarle Commission, a nonprofit based in Elizabeth City. Within this organization is the RPO that handles the transportation planning for the 10 counties in the region (including Dare), said Bert Banks, executive director. The current Hyde representatives on this commission, which meets quarterly, are County Manager Bill Rich and County Commissioner Anson Byrd from the Lake Landing District. The next meeting will be Sept. 11 at a location to be determined.
The next several months will see a transition period, Banks said, between the old way and the new way of funding transportation projects, which is fairly complicated. This group will make transportation priority recommendations based on what is needed locally.
“Funding for the ferries will probably be a local issue for the RPOs,” Banks continue. “We can only make recommendations in our Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). The DOT will have the ultimate authority.”
Timothy Haas, a spokesman for the NC Ferry Division, confirmed that any changes in ferry tolling will come from the RPO, which would make such a recommendation to the state Transportation Board. After that, it would go through a process before, or if, any tolls are enacted.
“This legislation is a month old and we’re still figuring out how it works,” he said, adding that finding money to replace ferries will be a key challenge.
But Banks and McClees encouraged citizens to let their RPO representatives what they want.
“I don’t want people to think we don’t ever have to do anything again about the ferries,” McClees said. “Hyde County has a lot of competition in your RPO. We need some high-energy people involved who will speak up.”