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By Connie Leinbach
Several Ocracoke islanders were among about 40 who attended a passenger ferry steering committee meeting Wednesday in Manteo.
The group will meet bi-monthly to plan for the arrival of this new form of transportation between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, said Bill Rich, Hyde County manager, who attended along with others from the county.
In addition to island business owners, among those attending were officials from Dare County government and tourism, the N.C. DOT Ferry Division, the state tourism office, a representative from Element Advertising, which is working with the Ocracoke Civic and Business Assn. (OCBA), Alan Moran, the local representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, and Ed Timoney, the passenger ferry project manager, Rich said.
“It was a great meeting,” he said. “I was amazed at Dare County’s excitement as to what will make the passenger ferry successful.”
Bob Chestnut, owner of Ride the Wind Surf Shop, who attended, said Deputy Ferry Division Director Jed Dixon was emphatic that the passenger ferry would not reduce the importance of or service by vehicle ferries.
After two PowerPoint presentations and break-out sessions, the group came up with three priorities, Rich said.
One is to make sure the new ferry is a positive experience and as user-friendly as possible. Suggestions included lots of concessions on the boat and a lower price the first year of, say $7, for adults and for kids to ride free.
“Maybe have a soft start rather than a full-on,” Chestnut said.
Dare County is concerned about possible traffic congestion the traffic stacking lanes at Hatteras dock and would like to get their bus service to shuttle people from points north to the dock, Rich said.
But Dare County also is also interested in how they can capitalize on the new ferry and if people on Ocracoke could buy tickets for day trips to Hatteras Island, Chestnut said.
“They have to figure out parking,” he said.
The third priority was to assure adequate information about the new service on both islands.
According to a timeline provided by Timoney, said Chestnut, construction won’t conclude until June 2018.
“And then there are sea trials,” Chestnut said. “It might not be operational until July.”
This new boat already has a name, Ocracoke Express, which was offered by Ocracoke school students a few months ago.
The N.C. Dept. of Transportation in June awarded a $4.15 million contract to Armstrong Marine Inc. in Swansboro to construct one catamaran-style ferry with seating for 149 both inside and out. It will only initially seat 96 passengers, including two spots for wheelchairs, Stevens said.
Dixon had said in a June meeting on the island with Ferry Division officials that the entire project budget, including the new ferry and infrastructure changes, is $9.1 million.
In June 2016, the N.C. General Assembly appropriated $3.6 million to the Ferry Division to activate the passenger ferry, and the N.C. Ferry Division applied for and received a Federal Lands Access Program grant of about $7 million that would include the building of one passenger ferry and cover the costs of a village tram system, including infrastructure.
Although this ferry will be powered by jet propulsion (as with jet skis), it will not be high-speed but will have a maximum speed of under 30 knots.
Helena Stevens, the OCBA travel and tourism director, who attended, said as of now, passenger ferry tickets will be for one day only, although the Ferry Division is considering includings tickets for overnight (or longer-stay) visitors as the projects evolves.
Transportation around Ocracoke Village was a big concern among Ocracoke Islanders, who discussed it among themselves after the meeting, Chestnut said.
Shuttling day visitors around the island via open-air trams is still being worked out, Rich said. As of now, only passenger ferry passengers will be able to ride the trams and free of charge.
Tom Pahl, Ocracoke’s county commissioner, had explained at an island Feb. 7 meeting about tram service that the county would be on the hook to pay for the operating costs.
In April, the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax board agreed to grant $70,000 to match Hyde County’s contribution of $70,000 towards an initial maintenance and personnel cost of about $216,000.
But now, that cost has ballooned to about $250,000 a year, Rich said, and the lingering question is how to fund it.
“I told the state on Wednesday that they need to help fund this,” he said. “The whole concept has changed since the beginning, but Hyde County is not going to tax the community for this.”
However, he has heard that a few local business owners are contemplating providing their own shuttle services.
Chestnut and others are in favor of having tram service in the village in general, or as soon as possible to see how it will work once the passenger ferry launches.
“I’m really concerned about the traffic congestion now in the village,” he said. “When I leave my shop at night to go to the Variety Store, everything that rolls is out there.”