By Connie Leinbach
Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Southport) is at it again.
Rabon’s bill, Senate Bill #382, passed Monday night (April 27), asks for the NC DOT to look into privatization of the ferry system.
Here is the wording from Rabon’s April 30 eNewsletter:
“This bill is a request for information regarding the privatization of North Carolina’s ferry system, meaning that if this bill is passed, the Board of Transportation will be directed to study the privatization of our ferries and report back to the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee by Feb. 1. The information found in this study will be crucial to determining whether or not turning over our ferry system to the market is the best thing for North Carolinians.
As of right now North Carolina has 22 ferries and 7 routes, which operates at a $35 million deficit. We believe that privatizing the ferries in North Carolina will make our ferry service more efficient as well as free up DOT funding for other uses.”
This bill passed the Senate 48-2, with Senators Bill Cook and Norman Sanderson voting no, according to Cook’s legislative assistant Jordan Hennessey.
Information Hennessey supplied on statewide snow and ice removal costs show that in 2014, $76.9 million was spent. This year so far, $64.4 million has been spent.
A co-chair of the appropriations sub-committee of the Department of Transportation, Rabon also introduced Senate Bill #540, to allow anyone who wanted to pay $150 to purchase a priority pass on all state ferries and would become effective July 15.
The bill is in committee and would have to pass the House, be ratified, and, if required, signed by the Governor.
Henri McClees, part of a two-person lobbyist team hired by Hyde and other coastal counties, explained Thursday that this bill is different from a “study” bill.
“It’s asking the DOT to make plans to go forward and what’s involved in that,” she said.
The problem with privatizing the ferry service is that it wouldn’t work the way business people think it should.
She cited the move years ago to privatize the prison system. When the private owners couldn’t make a profit, the prison system went back to being state-run.
When private ferries were in use decades ago, they weren’t under the federal regulations (i.e., the Coast Guard) that they are today.
“Those regulations have run up the cost of the ferries in recent years,” she said.
Such regulations improve safety here in the United States, which is why we don’t see the kind of ferry accidents seen in other parts of the world where private enterprise tries to cram on as many paying customers as possible.
These new bills are part of a mix of bills legislators have filed recently regarding transportation, including Senate Bill #307 filed in March to eliminate all tolls on ferries.
House members also recently proposed House Bill #927 titled “Re-establish North Carolina as the ‘Good Roads State.’”
She explained that this bill is to change the computation of the motor fuels excise tax rates and more.
“The issue is how to fund transportation,” she said. “There’s not enough revenue to fund the current and prospective transportation needs of the state.”
For a while, she said, the highway fund was so flush with money that the legislators took some out of the DOT budget for the general fund. That is no longer the case.
Moreover, ferries are a small part of the overall DOT budget, she said, which, in 2013 to 2014 was $4.4 billion.
“The flaw in Rabon’s thinking is, nowhere does it say that roads are supposed to make money,” McClees said. “Ferries are not designed to produce money just as highways are not designed to produce money.”
Ferries are moving bridges, she said, “and ferries are cheaper than bridges.”
But the tolled Southport ferry, which is in Rabon’s District 8, is primarily used by tourists going to Fort Fisher, McClees said.
“His people aren’t using the ferries for day-to-day life like Ocracoke,” she said.
Several years ago, she noted, the leadership in North Carolina shifted from the east and western parts of the state to those in Charlotte and the Piedmont.
Now, legislators in the power positions, as well as Gov. Pat McCrory, are from these burgeoning urban areas, which are getting more attention.