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By Connie Leinbach
A public discussion Tuesday night on proposed tram service on Ocracoke in conjunction with the passenger ferry in 2018 yielded more comments and questions from islanders.
The meeting, scheduled by Ocracoke’s County Commissioner Tom Pahl and held in the Ocracoke Community Center, was the first of two such meetings to obtain more community input about Hyde County’s request for $146,000 from occupancy tax funds (half this year and half next) to cover the operating costs of three 23-passenger, open-air trams.
A second public meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9 in the same location and the Occupancy Tax Board will consider Hyde’s request at a public meeting April 4 along with all the other island nonprofits.
“Everything we talked about tonight is on the table,” Pahl said in his opening remarks about the project. “We are willing to drastically change the proposal based on your feedback and consider all options.”
While some of the 30 islanders attending said that tram service is a great idea, others said the island should see how it goes first and let the private sector handle transportation rather than take money from occupancy tax that island nonprofits count on.
Some also said that an influx of hundreds of people from the passenger ferry throughout the day will further clog the already crowded streets in the summer.
“Since I was elected commissioner, the most powerful complaint I’ve had is that the long route is killing us,” Pahl said. “I’ve heard this over and over and over. Another group of people are saying, ‘Wait a minute. Enough is enough.’”
Hyde County Manager Bill Rich, attending along with Ed Timoney, passenger ferry project manager, and Hyde County Commissioner Board Chairman Earl Pugh Jr., all on speaker phone from Swan Quarter, said the county was asked to get more people to Ocracoke.
“We were asked four years ago how to get ridership back to 2010 levels and a passenger ferry was the only option,” Rich said. “How we got the $9 million dollars was a miracle in itself to those that thought it was a good idea. Then the issue arose on how to move the folks around. We thought that the tram would be an eco-friendly way to get people around the village and reduce traffic.”
Hyde County’s latest proposal of $146,000 is a $70,000 reduction from their first proposal of $216,000, which they presented to the Occupancy Tax Board in a special meeting Feb. 22.
Pahl said there is a strong feeling among the planning group that if you drop pedestrians onto Ocracoke, you need some way to get them around.
“One of the big questions is does the tram system plus private enterprise provide enough service to meet the need,” he said.
Moreover, he said the money from a $7 million Federal Lands Access Program grant for this project includes purchasing the trams.
“If we decide not to have a tram system we may lose the opportunity to even have that money,” he said.
Sundae Horn, owner of the Ocracoke Current, who said she believes the private sector would be adequate, asked if the trams could be purchased but mothballed the first year of passenger ferry service (in 2018) to see how it works first with the private sector.
Rich replied that if the private sector could handle it, that would be the answer.
However, no one really knows at this point.
“We just can’t know until we try it,” Pahl said, adding that there have been 100,000 fewer visitors in 2015 than in 2008.
B.J. Oelschlegel, a realtor and proprietor of the Slushy Stand, asked how many years will people put up with long lines at the Hatteras Ferry.
“If we had relief valve (in the passenger ferry), it ought to work,” she said. “It’s worth a try.”
Sue and Vince O’Neal, who own the Pony Island Restaurant, said the majority of islanders are against the tram.
“We do not want to look like every other beach town, we are unique. We are not Key West.” Sue said. “The quiet older people not on social media are against it.”
“A lot of us remember the trolley and that was a boondoggle,” Vince said, “and we didn’t have nowhere near the traffic we have today.”
He also asked why, if the state is putting in a passenger ferry and tram service does Ocracoke occupancy tax have to pay for tram operations.
“Why wouldn’t the state have the foresight to include that?” he said. “We have little (occupancy tax) to use in the community.”
Finley Austin echoed others when she said she was concerned that money taken from occupancy tax funds would be taken away from projects tourists enjoy, such as the fireworks last year. She also asked if any traffic studies had been done on Highway 12, Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Leslie Lanier, owner of Books To Be Red, said businesses want both visitors who come for the day and those who stay longer.
“Businesses depend on day trippers,” she said. “Business owners have to make a living and employ the people who live here.”
Rudy Austin, who owns Portsmouth Boat Tours and is president of the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association, said the passenger ferry will change the way visitors get to the island and suggested that with the advent of the passenger ferry more vehicles ferries would be cut from service.
He also asked how well a for-fee passenger ferry will work if people can stay in their cars and get on the free ferry.
But Pahl said the passenger ferry feasibility study (done in June 2015) surveyed 3,000 people in the line at Hatteras and found that those who said they would choose the passenger ferry were primarily couples without children who know they can make reservations before heading down to Hatteras.
“We’re selling convenience,” said Kris Noble, Hyde County assistant manager, who also attended along with Beverly Paul, director of Hyde County Transit, a mainland nonprofit identified to manage the tram system.
Discussion also covered having the tram simply travel back and forth along Irvin Garrish Highway, from the village ferry docks to Howard’s Pub, instead of throughout the village, as a way to reduce the total cost. But Paul said the meandering route was chosen because of Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. If a tram just traveled the main route, Hyde Transit would need to have handicap-accessible vans on call.
Pahl said that after the March 9 meeting, the planning committee will come back with a modified proposal. He again said he would not support a vote of the commissioners to override the Occupancy Tax Board’s decision.
Sue Dayton, owner of Roxy’s Antiques, noted that the island’s vast, undeveloped beaches are our treasure, and passenger ferry riders need access to those.
“The scariest thing is if the current (presidential) administration takes away our beach and drills off the coast,” she said. “We have the loveliest beach on the Outer Banks and it would be beneficial to get people out to the beach to see it for themselves.”