By Connie Leinbach
The Dare County Commissioners last night decided not to rescind their recent vote to support tolling the free car ferry route from Hatteras to Ocracoke.
Hyde County Manager Bill Rich was on the agenda at last night’s meeting, which is available for viewing on the Dare County Commissioners’ website http://www.darenc.com/BOC/ . He also filed written comments that can be viewed by clicking here.
He asked the commissioners to rescind their vote taken Oct. 16 to support tolling the Hatteras Ferry after a presentation by the Ferry Division.
After comments from five of the seven commissioners, Warren Judge made a motion to rescind their prior vote, but the motion failed 5 to 2. Only he and Allen Burrus, the commissioner who represents the southern end of Dare County, voted to rescind the prior vote. The vote also was split by partisan lines. Those supporting the tolling measure were all Republican, Judge and Burrus, Democrats.
Neither Beverly Boswell nor Margarette Umphlett spoke but voted with the others.
This does not mean the Hatteras Ferry is now tolled; it means that Dare supports a toll should that possibility arise.
Before calling for the vote on Judge’s motion, Wally Overman, vice-chair of the board, said that their action is a moot point because right now the RPO has not voted on this issue.
“But we need to keep our options open,” he said. “If the General Assembly can’t (get funding for ferries out of the RPO) then we got to do something given the dire situation given to us by Ferry Division on ferry replacement.”
The Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO or RPO), in a new transportation funding system set up by the state, is tasked with funding all transportation needs in its 10-county area (including Dare and Hyde) with a yearly allotment of $32 million.
In his comments, Rich stressed that State Reps. Paul Tine (U) and John Torbett (R), co-chairs of the House Appropriations Committee Transportation, have said to hold off on this issue until sometime after April when Legislators convene. The two have promised to work on getting the funds for replacement ferries out of local control.
Ferry replacement funds is at the heart of the wrangling over ferry tolling.
Ed Goodwin, ferry division chief, has stressed in meetings on Ocracoke that the fleet of 22 ferries is aging, with the average age at about 25 years old and two over 52.
“We’re a little brother to you guys (Dare County),” Rich said. “Everything we suffer through you suffer through. I ask that we work together on this and you rescind your vote and allow the General Assembly to work on it in the spring.”
Judge, in his comments about rescinding the prior vote, agreed, saying this vote was not to be construed as a slant against the NCDOT or Ferry Division, but that the two counties need to stand together.
“Decades ago, the state decided to put in ferries to get people to jobs and visitors here,” he said. “No one’s yet been able to explain to me why we’re making a difference between ferries and any road or bridge in this state.”
Commissioner Jack Shea said at the last meeting the RPO group had a consensus that it would not vote yay or nay on ferry tolling.
“It’s the Legislature’s responsibility (to fund ferry replacement),” he said. “It’s wrong to push down the financial responsibility for ferries on this RPO. Funding ferries takes away from funding bridges and roads.”
Allen Burrus, who represents southern Dare County, likened a toll on the Hatteras ferry to another tax on people who use it for work and supporting tolls will hurt the economy of southern Hatteras island.
“Put a toll on it and it’s the last trip we’ll make,” he said. “When you start tolls where does it stop? Bridges? It was a poor decision by ferry division 18 months ago when they went to the long haul. It’s a lot of money. They could have spent that money on dredging. This is wrong.”
“We stand with the people of southern Dare County,” Overman said disagreeing with the assessment by Burrus. “The question we need to consider is have we heard anything appreciatively different from what we heard two weeks ago? Everywhere passenger ferries have come in have been an economic boon wherever they’ve gone. It’s not a slam against anyone.”
Since Gov. Pat McCrory’s election, the state has revamped how it doles out transportation money and put decisions to enact tolls into the hands of local folks.
A complicated funding procedure McCrory devised and called the Strategic Transportation Investments (STI) divides the state into 10 regions. Some of the regions overlap, further complicating the funding process.
Prior to STI, ferry replacements were done by an appropriation from the Legislature. Rich has stressed that the money raised from collecting tolls on the Hatteras ferry would not come close to covering the costs of replacing three new car ferries.
Since a new car ferry costs $12 to $15 million—which would be half of the RPO allotment—that would take away from other much needed projects. Even taking out $5 million a year to build up a ferry replacement fund is at question.
At a meeting on Ocracoke Monday with Tim Hass, Ferry Division spokesman, and Rich, Hass said that current law allows for two ways to fund new ferries: from the RPO funds or tolling. Advertising also is an option, but the ferry division has yet to receive any advertising dollars.
Hass said the Ferry Division is not the one deciding to seek a toll on the Hatteras Ferry, but Rich had another view.
“This new effort to toll Hatteras came from within the Department of Transportation,” he said. “That’s what created the crisis.”
Peter Vankevich contributed to this story.