By Sam Walker
June 18, 2020
Reprinted courtesy of OBX Today
A bill in the N.C. General Assembly awaiting a final vote and the governor’s signature would provide funding for the Ocracoke Express passenger ferry to operate this summer and much-needed repairs at Elizabeth City State University.
Senate Bill 750, introduced by First District Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan) on May 14, was originally written to payoff the over $3.3 million in debt owed by the Town of Columbia for water and sewer upgrades to handle the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm.
The facility was shuttered last year in an effort to address staffing shortages at other prisons in North Carolina, leaving Columbia with no way to pay down the bonds after losing its largest customer.
That appropriation was shifted to Senate Bill 753 that also includes handling another roughly $2 million owed by Tyrrell County for the treatment facility.
On May 18, S750 was amended to earmark $6 million for a new heating and air conditioning system and chiller at ECSU.
After clearing the state Senate on June 11 by a unanimous vote, Sixth District Rep. Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) introduced an amendment Wednesday in a House subcommittee that adds $1.146 million from a legislative discretionary fund to cover the costs of leasing and operating the Hatteras-Ocracoke passenger ferry.
The N.C. Department of Transportation canceled its 2020 contract to lease a passenger vessel in April due to the financial impacts of COVID-19, along with major budgetary issues within the department.
NCDOT leased the ferry, the M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express, from the New Jersey-based ferry company Seastreak Marine in 2019, and transported more than 28,600 passengers between mid-May and late-August.
Wait times for the vehicle ferry across Hatteras Islands were significantly cut by the decreased demand, according to Ferry Division statistics, especially by visitors traveling to Ocracoke for day trips.
Without the passenger ferry, wait times skyrocketed to a much as two and three hours, before the Ferry Division increased the number of departures from each side to 26 this past Tuesday.
“Reinstating this ferry service will be a much-needed boost for tourism in Ocracoke, Hatteras and North Carolina,” Rep. Hanig said. Sen. Steinburg was not immediately available for comment.
The amended bill passed the House unanimously on Thursday, and now awaits a concurrence vote by the Senate before it heads to the desk of Governor Roy Cooper (D).
Hanig was confident that the bill will be approved, and pending getting a vessel in place and the route through the Pamlico Sound verified, he said the Ocracoke Express could be back in service in time for the Fourth of July weekend.