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Senate budget version retains ferry tolls, reinstates $150 priority pass fee

A view of the back of the Swan Quarter ferry. Photo: C. Leinbach

A view of the back of the Swan Quarter ferry. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

The NC General Assembly this week will begin the negotiating process on the two houses’ differing versions of their respective budgets, and ferry tolls and $150 priority passes are back in the mix. 

This priority pass provision is in section 35.12.(b) (page 142) of the Senate budget:

SECTION 35.12.(e) G.S. 136-82 is amended by adding a new subsection to read: 11 “(f2) Priority Boarding. – The Department of Transportation may issue annual passes to 12 individual passengers that entitle the passengers to priority when boarding a ferry passenger 13 vessel. The Department of Transportation shall charge an annual fee of one hundred fifty dollars 14 ($150.00) for each pass issued under this subsection. The fee would be in addition to any 15 applicable ferry toll. Proceeds from fees collected under this subsection shall be credited and used 16 in the same manner as toll proceeds under subsection (d) of this section. Notwithstanding any 17 other provision of law, and except as authorized under this subsection or for emergency vehicles 18 responding to an emergency, the Department of Transportation shall not provide priority boarding 19 of a ferry passenger vessel to any passenger or vehicle. For purposes of this subsection, the term 20 “emergency vehicle” has the same meaning as in G.S. 20-146.2.” 21 SECTION 35.12.(f) This section becomes effective July 1, 2016, and the fee 22 established in subsection (e) of this section applies to passes issued on or after that date.

While both budgets propose a $22.225 billion spending plan, the Senate’s budget, which Sen Bill Cook, representing Ocracoke in District 1, voted for, eliminates the $13 million appropriation out of the Highway Fund for replacement ferry vessels that the House’s budget included.

Both versions of the budget are available online at www.ncleg.net.  The different ways in which the two chambers would spend the total dollars is in the first seven pages of each budget version.

While Cook and Sen. Norman Sanderson had introduced a bill–prior to the budget bill–that would eliminate tolls on all ferries, and also appropriate $23 million to the Ferry Division, neither of these items is in the Senate’s version of the budget.

Under the Highway Fund section of this “money report,” so-called by Rep. John Torbett (R-Gaston), a co-chair of the House Transportation Committee, under the “Intermodal Divisions,” the House proposes $13.010 million for the Ferry Division and $4 million for public transportation.

In the Senate version, of these same line-items, the Ferry Division would get zero, public transportation $4 million, aviation: $14.82 million and rail would get $13.75 million.

In a press release, Cook noted his support of the “Senate version of the state budget, which cuts taxes, controls the growth of government spending, bolsters the state’s savings, and dramatically increases teacher pay while providing over $180 million to state employees in performance-based pay increases or bonuses.”

While the Senate budget contains also several coastal provisions, such as support for aquaculture, beach nourishment and shallow-draft dredging.

“I am against the priority pass provision pertinent to our ferries,” Cook said in an email about the Senate budget.

“Senator Norman Sanderson and I have crafted legislation that would remove mandatory tolls on the three N.C. Ferry routes that currently have a fee. The legislation would also prevent a fee from being added to the four routes that currently do not have a toll.”

Rep. Paul Tine (U-Kitty Hawk), who in April introduced a bill to eliminate all ferry tolls and appropriate money for replacement ferry vessels, said Friday that the budgets are statements of priorities in each chamber and that he expects to be named a conferee next week.

“We need to fix the ferry system,” he said. “We need enough money to run the routes we have, and we have the extra money (for ferry replacement funding).”

Tine was referring to the close to $240 million surplus the state will realize this year.

“The existing tolls aren’t going to get you enough revenue and the $150 (for priority passes) isn’t going to get us there,” Tine said about the ferry tussle.

He said that ferries are always a central disagreement between the House and Senate.

“But we made (ferries) a priority and will continue to fight,” he said about the House.

At issue is the new way in which replacement car ferries, which cost about $15 million each, are funded. A few years ago, the state put this issue into local hands by dividing the state into 10 districts and giving them each a pot of about $32 million with which to fund all transportation needs within each district.

Along with funding new roads and bridges, the counties within each district prioritize their needs. For Ocracoke’s area, replacement ferry boats must compete with the needs of the other counties.

Tine and Torbett have been arguing that the state should treat ferry routes the same as highways and fund the equipment needed for them out of the Highway Fund.

Torbett, one of the sponsors of the House’s version of the transportation section of the budget along with Tine, said Thursday that since he is a co-chair of the House Transportation Committee he also expects to be appointed a conferee.

“I can be just as tenacious as the next guy,” Torbett said about his quest to stabilize ferry funding. “If they don’t want to hear about ferries anymore then they can pass our plan.”

Total expenditures represent a 2.3 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Since the House budget does not concur with the Senate’s version, they will call a conference and appoint conferees to negotiate all the sections of the budget, said Henri McClees, a lobbyist hired by Hyde County to fight enacting or raising ferry tolls.

Each chamber has a different approach to what is funded, McClees said.

“They don’t agree on the ferries,” she said. “They did not take the house plan. Tolls are still in Senate budget.”

While they both agree teachers need raises, how these raises will be given is different, she said, with the Senate giving the raises more quickly.

State retirees would not get a cost-of-living increase under the Senate plan, while the House wants to give them a 1.6 percent increase.

The two budget have different sales tax approaches, she said.

According to other news sources, the Senate’s bill makes up for a tax cut it has included by expanding sales tax on services.

Both Torbett and McClees said that the senators most in favor of ferry tolls are Bill Rabon (R-Southport) and Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston).

But Sen. Wesley Meredith (R-Cumberland) is OK with the House plan, McClees said.

McClees said islanders should write to all of the senators now about their views on the budget.

“The whole Senate is working on the budget,” she said. “It’s very important that other Senators become aware of this (ferry) problem.”