Commentary

A strategy for fully funding the ferry service

On the ferry ride from Hatteras to Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

For Ocracoke news and much more, click here 

By Tom Pahl
Ocracoke’s Hyde County commissioner

Ferry passengers have been reporting lately that they have waited in line for two to three hours, and there have been many reports of those who have simply given up and gone away. So, the announcement by the Ferry Division last week that the Ocracoke/Hatteras ferry will increase from 36 to 52 daily departures is very welcomed news. But we can’t accept this as the final answer. We need to keep up the pressure for full funding of our ferry operations and I’d like to suggest a strategy.

First it’s important to know that the Ferry Division wants to provide more and better service. The causes of these recent long lines and wait times are big financial issues above them in the NCDOT. Some of those problems can be attributed to overall budget management and some to a sudden decline in NCDOT revenue from state and federal gasoline tax. That revenue stream practically shut down when the COVID restrictions went into place in North Carolina and across the U.S.

The combination of those factors resulted in a significant budget shortfall projected to the end of the fiscal year (June 30). As a result, there has been a near freeze on NCDOT spending and a harsh cut in services across the board. Among other impacts on our ferry service was the cancellation of the passenger ferry, which was so successful last year, and the slow move to a summer schedule. While these actions may be understandable from a big-picture perspective, they make no sense when you drill down to the real-world cost/benefit picture.

The Ferry Division’s annual budget is around $45 million. Seems like a lot of money until you look at the whole NCDOT budget of $5 billion. The Ferry Division allocation is less than 1% of the whole NCDOT budget. Let’s say tightening the belt on the Ferry Division might save $5 million. That’s one tenth of 1% of the DOT budget. That’s like a family that is having a problem paying their mortgage deciding they’ll will cut back on salt. It’s just doesn’t address the problem, and the food tastes bad.

The following is the strategy:

We need to go to the decision makers and make our case for full restoration of ferry funding.

I would suggest that email, social media, phone calls, letters to the editor….all of these things can make a big difference right now.  I will list key decision makers and their contact information below.  Please contact as many of them as you can and contact anyone you may also know in the legislature, the administration, NCDOT and the media.  Please, please be polite, clear and brief.

Key points we might want to make:

Thank you for everything you have done to support the ferry and other transportation service to Ocracoke in the past and especially during these difficult times

Describe a hardship you have experienced, as a business or a resident due to ferry delays

Ocracoke has been hit by two major disasters in the last nine months:  Hurricane Dorian and the COVID virus.  Both have been devastating to our businesses, our workforce and our residents.  We are losing jobs, we are losing workers, we are losing businesses.  Anything other than restoration of full ferry service, including the Passenger Ferry will be another huge hit and may be a  killer to our local economy.

While the benefit to the NCDOT of a cut in Ferry Service is minimal, the negative impact on our residents and businesses is huge.

Revenue generated to State and Local government in the form of sales taxes, income taxes, property taxes and occupancy taxes is all tied to a healthy tourism economy – which in turn is tied to fully operating ferry service.

Who they are and how to reach them:

Rep. Bobby Hanig:  bobby.hanig@ncleg.net 919-733-5906; House District 6 (That’s us)

Sen. Bob Steinburg:  Bob.Steinburg@ncleg.net ; 919-715-8293; Senate District 1 (That’s us)

Rep. John Torbett: John.Torbett@ncleg.net ; 704-263-9282; Chair House Transp. Standing Committee

Rep. Frank Iler: Frank.Iler@ncleg.net ; 919-301-1450; Chair House Com. on Transp. Appropriations

Rep. Michelle Presnell: Michelle.Presnell@ncleg.net ; 828-208-3874; Chair House Com. on Transp. Approp.

Rep. Phil Shepard: Phil.Shepard@ncleg.net ; 910-389-6392; Chair House Com. on Transp. Approp.

Sen. Jim Davis:  Jim.Davis@ncleg.net ;  919-733-5875; Chair Senate Committee on Transportation Appropriations

Sen. Tom McInnis:  Tom.McInnis@ncleg.net ; 919-733-5953; Chair Senate Com. on Transp. Appropriations

Secretary of Transportation Eric Boyette:  jeboyette@ncdot.gov ;

NCDOT Secretary for Communications and Community Outreach: Greer Beaty; gbeaty@ncdot.gov ;

NCDOT Director of Financial Oversight David Tyeryar: dtyeryar@ncdot.gov;

Governor Roy Cooper https://governor.nc.gov/contact/contact-governor-cooper