Editors’ note: This is an update to an editorial printed in the November edition of the Ocracoke Observer. 

In the last couple of  weeks, Ocracoke residents and businesses have had to face the prospect once again of tolling the Hatteras car ferries.

As of now, the parties pressing for a toll to generate funds for replacement ferries have agreed to wait until after the General Assembly convenes next spring to see if these funds can be appropriated out of the NCDOT general fund. (See the story about Dare County Commissioner Warren Judge apologizing to Hyde County by clicking here.)

We will keep an eye on this situation, but for a short time recently the prospect of a toll on the still-free Hatteras ferry loomed.

Since 2011 when ferry tolls were proposed, the island (and its friends) has successfully fought off this gambit.

For the last year, NC Ferry Division officials have, in their monthly meetings on the island, focused primarily on the addition of a for-fee passenger ferry from Hatteras into Silver Lake. The state has received a $7 million federal grant to help make this happen, including the necessary infrastructure and the purchase of one ferry. This is a great plus since it is outside of the region’s shared transportation pot as you will see below. A feasibility study on this is expected to be completed before the end of this year.

Up until October, ferry tolls were not a topic in these community meetings.

So, many were surprised when County  Manager  Bill Rich reported at the Hyde County Commissioners’ October meeting and the following week at the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association that a ferry toll for Hatteras was back on the table. One proposal, he revealed, would allow anyone to purchase a commuter pass for Hatteras, Swan Quarter and Cedar Island for $75 per year. Visitors and islanders alike not opting in for this pass would pay a one-way or round-trip fee to be determined.

The Ferry Division is grappling with how to get much-needed money to pay for replacement ferries in their aging fleet of 22 boats. The average age of the boats is 26 years old, with two that have been in service for 52 years and one for 47 years. As you can imagine, older boats need more frequent repairs which takes them out of service for various periods of time. New car ferries cost about $16 million while a passenger ferry would cost around $2 million.

The challenge for the Ferry Division was made even greater when in 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory launched a new way to fund transportation needs statewide.  He divided the state into 10 regional transportation planning organizations allocating $32 million to each to fund all transportation needs, including road repair, bridge maintenance, snow and sand removal and new ferries.

Ocracoke is part of the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO) which consists of 10 Eastern Carolina counties. As it stands now, it is the ARPO, not the General Assembly, that has the authority to decide whether to implement a toll for the Hatteras ferry.

After a briefing by the Ferry Division, the Dare County Commissioners, who are among the 10 counties in the ARPO, voted 6 to 1 at their October meeting to support such a Hatteras toll should this be on the quarterly ARPO meeting agenda. In the Dare meeting, no one speculated on what impact a ferry toll would have on Ocracoke’s economy. 

Hyde County officials and Rep. Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk) who were attending the Ocracoke monthly ferry meeting earlier that same day were unaware that ferry tolls would be on the Dare County agenda and heard Ferry Director Ed Goodwin say he would fight for what Ocracoke wants. So much for communication.  

Ferry tolls made the agenda for the ARPO quarterly meeting on Oct. 21, but no vote was taken.  The issue is expected to be taken up in the Jan. 21 meeting.

We don’t envy the Ferry Division’s difficult challenge of having to come up with ferry replacement money. They have to provide service and are frustrated that, although promised, no real money is currently available outside of the $32 million fund.

And certainly it is not realistic that ferry purchases should come out of this limited transportation fund to serve 10 counties.

In the General Assembly, Tine  and Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), who are co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee Transportation, are strongly against tolls on any ferry. They want to get funding for ferry replacement out of the ARPO fund and are working on getting the General Assembly to take up this issue when it reconvenes in April.

Replacing a ferry is the same as replacing a dump truck, Torbett said.

The Hatteras-Ocracoke route is the most traveled ferry in the NC system, having carried 305,744 vehicles in 2014, or 34 percent of the traffic on all  seven routes, according to a presentation made by Jed Dixon, assistant ferry division director in April to the House Appropriations, Transportation, Committee.  The next most-traveled route is Cherry Branch at 238,681, and the least traveled is Currituck at 24,450.

So it’s no wonder that policymakers see dollar signs to be had here.

The Ferry Division has been requested to seek funding by obtaining sponsorship naming rights. So far, nothing has come of this.

We are concerned that not enough discussion has focused on the impact a ferry toll would have on Ocracoke’s small business economy.  How many “day-trippers” (visitors) who spend just the day, would decide not to make the trip due to this fee?  Would they take the ferry for a round-trip of $10? Would they take it for $30?

The number of visitors is already down in the past two years by 30 percent due to the extended travel time caused by shoaling. It is hard to imagine that a ferry toll would boost visitors.

We also question whether tolls would come close to covering the costs of new ferries.

Will Letchworth, an engineer with Volkert, the group conducting the passenger ferry feasibility study,  conducted a survey for the DOT in 2012. He had confirmed that his research showed 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.

The passenger ferry may increase visitors, but this would not be implemented until at least 2017 and would be limited to the tourist season

Rich is supportive of replacing some of the car ferries with passenger ferries, which would be a lot cheaper. Getting people to leave their cars for the day may take some convincing.

The free ferry has been part of the Ocracoke fabric, and to add a toll without an economic impact study could be disastrous for the island. There are those elsewhere in the state that are adamant against tolling roads or bridges in their regions as well as Interstate 95. Why? They say it would hurt local business.  

A more fundamental argument is whether it is legal (let alone fair) to charge residents to come and go to their homes on an island which is the continuation of a state highway: Highway 12 South extends from Nags Head, through Hatteras, through Ocracoke Island and then onto Cedar Island.

It is not reasonable that money be taken from the $32 million dollar transportation fund for the 10 counties to pay for ferries. We support Reps. Tine and Torbett’s efforts to procure funding outside of $32 million yearly allocation.

But time is running out.

Tine, who represents Ocracoke, recently announced that he would not seek reelection and will leave office at the end of 2016. His departure as a lawmaker will be a big blow to Ocracoke.  

We hope that he and his Republican colleague co-chair Torbett will be successful in procuring funds when the Assembly reconvenes in April, and that the Ferry Division finds sponsors that will help offset these high replacement costs.  

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