Editorial & Opinion

Open letter to Ocracoke community on the ferry toll fight

On the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

On the Swan Quarter ferry to Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

Thank you for your interest in the issue of “NO Ferry Tax.”  Because of your support, we won!  Congratulations!  The 2016 Budget Bill, passed on July 1, stabilizes funding for the purchase of ferry vessels and forbids the NC Dept. of Transportation (DOT) from imposing tolls on ferry routes that are presently toll-free.

When the ferry tax issue erupted in 2011, many coastal residents felt like David facing Goliath.  HB#200/SL2011-145, page 338, provided for tolling on all ferries except the Ocracoke/Hatteras Ferry and the Knotts Island Ferry, effective July 1, 2011.  Beaufort, Pamlico, Hyde and Currituck County commissioners determined to lobby the NC General Assembly, including the “heavy lifting” of contacting leadership in the Senate and House.

Beaufort and Pamlico citizens recalled the desperate economic circumstances that gave rise to the river ferries. Highway 306 was constructed and Pamlico and Neuse River ferries instituted to open up an impoverished peninsula and promote employment.  Knotts Island residents rely on their ferry to provide the only in-state access to schools for students.  Residents of the small island community in Currituck County must drive through Virginia if the ferry is not running.  Ocracoke residents must take the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry or pay to ride on the Cedar Island or Swan Quarter routes. Local historians researched the individual roads and ferry routes, reading about the introduction of state-maintained ferries. They wrote histories that proved to be invaluable evidence for legislators.

Because of the voices of citizens and the growing expressions of concern from coastal Legislators, we were able to persuade the Legislature that slapping tolls on untolled ferries was a huge issue. In 2012, the legislature temporarily stopped the new ferry tolls.  SB#187/SL2012-145, page 13, ordered DOT not to collect the increased ferry tolls during the fiscal year 2012-2013.  Our momentum grew in 2013. Communities from Oriental to Ocracoke organized local groups, created Facebook pages, and compiled email lists for quick and effective communications. Social media churned with the news that the beloved Minnesott Beach and Bayview and Ocracoke ferries were going to be “taxed.”

The Legislature relented somewhat more in 2013. In the Appropriations Act of 2013, the Legislature provided DOT could not toll any untolled ferry route unless or until it received a Resolution approving tolling by the Transportation Advisory Committee of the affected local transportation planning organization.  Further, the law provided for Public Hearings in each affected geographic area.  SB#402/SL2013-360, page 308. DOT announced a schedule of ferry tolls. DOT workers hastily built tollbooths, and DOT Board members loudly announced tolls were “just a matter of time.”

In our great country, the government is not a monolithic “Goliath.”  It is true that a bureaucracy like DOT can seem to be a gigantic, unresponsive opponent. For a while it seemed that nothing would change.  DOT refused to change course.  DOT Board members mocked these citizen efforts and focused on bullying county officials and Rural Planning Organization (RPO) members into voting for ferry taxes. They pressured for RPOs to vote prior to public hearings scheduled for early 2014.  To their credit, RPO members held their ground against this pressure. When citizens learned about the bullying tactics by the DOT Board, they resented the concept of ferry taxes even more. Instead of quashing opposition, actions of DOT bureaucrats incensed citizens.

In early 2014, DOT conducted ferry toll public hearings.  Citizens called them taxes, and hated them.  Public hearings were crowded with citizens who vociferously opposed ferry taxes.  Newspapers loved us, and the articles were widely circulated online.  Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics are local.” What started as a local concern had moved to the halls of the N.C. general assembly and became a statewide issue in 2014. The ferry toll issue appeared in “top ten issues” lists by political analysts.

The legislature is the branch of government more directly responsive to local concerns.  North Carolina has 170 legislators, 50 senators and 120 representatives. Our message resounded loud and clear.  Citizens began to say, “NO Ferry Tax!” Delegations from Beaufort, Pamlico, Hyde and Currituck Counties visited legislators. You sent emails, wrote letters and called your legislators.

In 2014, leaders of the House Transportation Committee, including Rep. John Torbett, visited our coastal counties to hear from citizens and ride the ferries.   They attended DOT Public Hearings at Knotts Island, Ocracoke, Oriental and in Beaufort County.  Thanks to your outreach and active participation, these legislators were impressed! 

When the 2014 General Assembly convened, they went to work with new energy. 

On July 2, 2014, HB#1234 “Ferry Tolling/Replacement Funds” passed the House by a vote of 106-2.  Its primary sponsors were Rep. Bob Steinburg (R, Dt.#1, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell), Rep. Paul Tine (U, Dt.#6, Beaufort, Dare, Hyde, Washington), Rep. John Torbett (R, Dt.#108, Gaston), and Rep. Michael Speciale (R, Dt.#3, Beaufort, Craven, Pamlico). Sen. Bill Cook (R, Dt.#1, Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, Perquimans) andSen. Norman Sanderson (R, Dt.#2, Carteret, Craven, Pamlico) filed a similar bill SB#792 “Ferry Tolling/Replacement Funds, filed on May 19, 2014.

Rep. Torbett never stopped working on our issue from July 2014 until July 1 of this year when the 2016 Budget Bill became law.    In 2016, Rep. Torbett spearheaded successful negotiations with the Senate to stabilize funding for the ferry system with a guarantee in the law that DOT cannot establish tolls on the ferries that currently have no tolls. HB#1030/SL2016-94, page 155. The budget passed the House with a vote of 103-12 and passed the Senate 26-13.

We won the “NO Ferry Tax” battle because we fought together and never gave up. We gained allies by telling our history, repeating our story and reaching new allies.

This is an important lesson for the future.  We are coastal residents in a state with burgeoning urban and suburban populations.  We persuaded legislators from the Piedmont to stand with us. In the ferry tax battle, we made new friends and won the issue. We now have advocates from the Piedmont region who know and love the beautiful coast of North Carolina. 

We did not give in to the bullying tactics of our opponent. Never be concerned with the size of your enemy.  As Winston Churchill said, when recalling an ominous period when Great Britain stood alone against Hitler’s Germany early in World War II:   “This is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

By the end of 2015, North Carolina’s population crossed the 10 million mark making us the ninth most populous state. We gained an average of 281 people per day during 2015.  As of the 2010 census, we are one-half urban and one-half rural, and our legislative districts reflect this new population distribution.  As North Carolina continues to grow, we will have opportunities and challenges. We in the coastal region must continue to form allies in the Piedmont, as we have done with the “NO Ferry Toll” issue.

Coastal counties working together can help to bring the prosperity that has arrived to other areas of the state. 

Thank you for the opportunity to represent you in these efforts.  The future of coastal North Carolina is in the hands of citizens who care enough to stand up and fight.  Thank you for allowing us to be a part of this exciting process.  Again, congratulations on a job well done.

Best regards, Joe and Henri McClees

Lobbyists for Beaufort, Currituck, Hyde and Pamlico Counties

McClees Consulting, Inc.
PO Box 430
Oriental, NC 28571-0430
Office (252) 249-1097
Fax (252) 249-3275
www.mccleesconsulting.com