Updated 9:30 a.m. Jan. 28, 2016
By Connie Leinbach
State legislators who spent three days in Hyde County earlier this week were impressed with the county and the passion of islanders who traveled to speak on behalf of keeping the Hatteras Ferry free.
Hyde County Manager Bill Rich on Wednesday said that thanks to the efforts of Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston) and Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk), the 10 members of the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization (ARPO) voted unanimously on Wednesday to postpone any vote on tolling that ferry.
Tolling the Hatteras Ferry is all about finding money to pay for replacement boats.
“They said they would wait until the spring short session to see if the General Assembly can agree to take ferry replacement (a capital expense) out of the $32 million allotted to the ARPO,” Rich said. “This is one of the results of Monday’s meeting.”
In a new funding system by Gov. Pat McCrory, the state was divided into 10 districts and given allotments from which to fund all manner of transportation projects in a competitive process. That formula includes ferry boat replacement, and competes with road, bridge, rail and other transportation projects.
Members of the House Select Committee on Strategic Transportation Planning and Long Term Funding Solutions, chaired by Torbett, convened on the mainland at The Outpost near Engelhard on Monday.
Some islanders spoke to them in the morning. Then, around noon, the group was transported to the ferry dock in Swan Quarter where more than 20 islanders, who had traveled on the Swan Quarter ferry that morning, had gathered to speak on the importance of the ferries to Ocracoke.
Rich said the committee members were amazed at how big the mainland was.
“But what really impressed them was when we pulled up to the ferry dock and how many (islanders) were there and how passionate the people were,” he said about the islanders’ visit.
Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, spoke about how critical the ferry service (especially the free Hatteras Ferry) is to the island, and that with the advent of the long route, visitors have dropped about 25 percent.
“It’s not because people don’t want to come to Ocracoke,” added islander Bill Jones. The longer route has reduced the number of runs the ferries can make each day.
Sundae Horn, travel and tourism director for the Ocracoke Civic and Business Association, told the group that most all of the visitors who call about visiting the island are excited about traveling here on the ferry and that it’s one of the selling points.
“It’s part of the tourist attraction to ride the ferry,” she said. “The magic begins on the ferry ride here.”
Torbett said in a later interview that holding the meeting in Hyde County opened a lot of legislative eyes.
“They didn’t understand the impact of tolling and that if you toll roads there are other options drivers have,” he said. Islanders don’t have that option.
Moreover, the several million that a Hatteras toll might collect would be eaten up with the administrative costs DOT would incur to collect those tolls.
“Our hope is to put (ferry replacement funding) into the highway system,” he said.
While Torbett understands islanders’ need to have reliable car ferries, he thinks the addition of passenger ferries would help the relieve the pressure on the car ferries.
Tine, also in a later interview, said the members could see that ferries should be treated as “floating bridges.”
He said he was impressed with Ocracokers’ comments and their passion during the noon gathering at the dock.
“But we still have a lot of work to convince the Senate,” he said.
Many of the legislators had never been on a ferry, Rich said, and they were impressed with the tours they took of the vessels at the dock.
Among those who spoke in the morning to the committee was islander Tom Pahl, who pointed out that islanders pay, as equals with the other residents of North Carolina, the North Carolina gasoline tax as well as state and federal income taxes.
“So it is only fair that the residents of Ocracoke should, as equals, have access to the services and infrastructure of the North Carolina Department of Transportation,” he said. “We have repeatedly addressed this issue, locally, as a community, and statewide in the legislature. We are occasionally able to set it aside, but it keeps coming back.”
He said the RPO funding mechanism is flawed.
“I fully support Representative Tine in his effort to remove that requirement from the RPO funding system, and I strongly urge the members of this committee to look at this issue and work with Representative Tine in that effort,” he said.
Among other locals who spoke against tolling the Hatteras ferry were Danny Couch of Hatteras, who is running unopposed for a Dare County commissioner seat, and Earl Pugh Jr, who is chairman of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners.
Darlene Styron, owner of the Sweet Tooth, said she had talked individually to some of the committee members about the downward domino effect a toll on the Hatteras ferry would have.
“When people decide not to come, it cuts down on sales, and sales taxes,” she said. “Some businesses would have to lay off employees and if they don’t have jobs they can’t afford to pay for their houses and cars.”
She praised the islanders who sacrificed a day to travel across the Sound to visit with the legislators.
“I’m thankful for the people in this community who took the time to come over,” she said. “It was a one-day sacrifice for something that affects the rest of your life.”
Although he did not attend the meetings, state Sen. Bill Cook said he is adamantly opposed to any type of a ferry tax, and that he has been opposed to the institution of tolls or increasing tolls on all ferry routes in North Carolina since beginning his legislative career.
“There are several other alternatives to ferry tolling, such as advertising or concession contracts that could make up for the lost in revenue,” he said
Following the meeting on transportation, the legislators and other business people had an economic development summit, organized by Hyde County Economic Development Department, on projects on the mainland, chiefly the airport and completing the renovation of Mattamuskeet Lodge into a lodging facility.