By Connie Leinbach
While NC Ferry Division officials were on Ocracoke yesterday assuring islanders that they would go along with islanders’ not wanting a toll on the Hatteras Ferry, the Dare County commissioners, after a presentation by the Ferry Division, voted 6 to 1 to approve tolling the Hatteras Ferry.
Ed Goodwin, Ferry Division director, along with Rep. Paul Tine, (U-Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Washington), joined Hyde County Manager Bill Rich in discussing the ferry issues yesterday with more than 30 islanders in the Ocracoke Community Center.
The most pressing issue is whether or not the local transportation planning organization—the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO)—should vote to approve tolling the Hatteras Ferry to create revenue to pay for much-need ferry boat replacement.
Tim Hass, Ferry Division spokesman, said today that Dare County asked the ferry division to “lay out the ferry tolling issue as it stands.”
After Dixon’s presentation, Wally Overman, vice-chair of the board, called for a vote to support tolling the Hatteras Ferry, said Allen Burrus, the Dare County commissioner representing Hatteras, when contacted today.
“Hatteras and Ocracoke got screwed last night,” he said, adding that he was taken by surprise by the vote and voted against it.
This vote does not mean there will be a toll on the Hatteras Ferry. Dare is one of 10 counties in the ARPO, and a majority of them must approve any action.
As of today, this item is not on the ARPO agenda for tomorrow’s meeting in Manteo, said Angela M. Welsh, planning director/RPO coordinator of the Albemarle Commission, but that could change. The ARPO members could vote to add it to the agenda, she said.
As for Dare County’s vote, Rich said it doesn’t matter if Dare made that resolution because all the other counties in the RPO won’t vote for it.
“I can’t believe they did that,” Rich said. “I thought Dare was with us. That’s not in concert with what’s going on. The RPO members said that if Hyde doesn’t want a toll on the Hatteras Ferry they won’t go along with it.”
He noted that Hyde went along with not agreeing to a proposed sales tax redistribution plan that would have hurt Dare.
Tine said today that he was unaware of the action and was disappointed in Dare’s vote.
“I think there are still some legislative options we’re pursuing,” he said about finding money for ferry replacement.
At the ferry meeting yesterday, Rich reiterated that there would be no vote on tolling the Hatteras Ferry at tomorrow’s meeting of the ARPO, one of 10 state organizations that oversee transportation needs within their regions.
Yesterday’s meeting followed that of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association Wednesday night where the group learned from Rich that the Ferry Division would ask the RPO to toll the Hatteras ferry to pay for replacement ferries.
Following two days of phone calls among various officials, Goodwin on Friday pulled the plug on that request.
Right now the cost of replacing car ferries (at about $15 million a pop) is included in the $32 million pot of money the state gives to each RPO to finance all transportation needs in the respective districts. This new method, created by Gov. Pat McCrory in 2013, is called the Strategic Transportation Investments (STI). Prior to that, ferry replacement was funded through appropriations by the General Assembly.
Tine said that he and other legislators in the short legislative session that begins in April will work on getting ferry replacement funding out of the RPOs’ pots of money.
“The House version of the budget had replacement money for ferries taken out of STI,” Tine said, but the final budget, a compromise between both houses and which was recently passed, put it back in.
“The money is there (in the state budget for ferry replacement),” Tine said. “The problem is getting the Senate to agree. We need to remove it out of the Division (RPO), or at least put it into the regional pot of money.”
Tine said Senate Republican leadership said they would work with him, and he urged islanders to “be nice” when they contact their representatives. He also said most Legislators are not interested as in the opinions of non-constituents.
This summer, Tine was appointed to serve as vice-chair of the Budget Conference Committee, which was convened when the two houses’ budget proposals did not agree. He also is chair of the House Appropriations Committee Transportation.
Last week, Tine announced he would not seek reelection in 2016, but he will fill out his term.
“We’ll give it one more shot,” Tine said about getting ferry replacement costs out of the RPO’s funding bucket. “You’re not going to have a transportation representative from this district (after he leaves). If we can’t (get ferry replacement out of the RPO funding pot) in the short session, you’ll have to look at something down the road.”
“It’s been promised to be fixed for several years,” Goodwin said about getting ferry replacement out of the RPO pot.
“We’re hauling 30 percent fewer from Hatteras because of the longer route,” he continued, adding that the average age of the 22 boats in the fleet is 26 years old and there are two over 52 years and one over 47 years.
“I look at the ferry lines and don’t see cars that old,” he said. “Older boats cost more to maintain. What can I do to run this more efficiently with what I have? It’s a sinking ship. Where is the money?”
He said islanders want more visitors.
“Tolls are the only avenue by which we can restore it,” he said.
“I’m trying to change the system,” Tine added. “He’s (Goodwin) trying to work within the system.”
A retired special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigation Services (NCIS), Goodwin said that in his opinion, it’s best to provide solutions to problems before the government does it for you.
Others in the audience gave a different view.
“We need to say no to tolls until we absolutely have to,” said Justin LeBlanc, vice-president of the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association. “Don’t move the goal post.”
Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth, said 85 percent of her customers are day-visitors. Since ridership is already down 30 percent because of the long route she said she can’t imagine that a toll would not further decrease day visitors.
Once you open the door to a toll, no matter how small, there’s always the possibility of raising it, she said.
So, if there was a toll on the Hatteras ferry would the proposed addition of (tolled) passenger ferries be needed? she asked.
Goodwin said the study by Volkert should be done at the end of November at which time discussion can continue on whether to choose one or the other, or a combination of both.
“If you don’t like it, we can leave it,” he said. “It’s not up to me.”
As for garnering more revenue through sponsorships and concessions, Goodwin said the division received one response from an international marketing company interested in helping locate sponsors, and that he has received sponsorship interest from NASCAR and some sports teams.
As far as residents making residents exempt from a toll, Tine said that because the Ferry Division receives federal money, discrimination is not allowed.
“We’d have to charge everyone,” he said.
Rich said Ocracoke needs to get the best deal possible, such as a grant, to cover the cost of commuter passes for island residents.
“We’re still trying to figure out how not to toll,” Tine said, “but have a plan B ready.”
Goodwin said setting a toll is up to the Board of Transportation.
Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.