Photo: P. Vankevich

Update/correction: The House today (June 9) passed S241 (described below) and it is on the Senate calendar Thursday morning at 10 a.m. The original post of this story said that this session of the N.C. Legislature ends July 2, but there is no statutory or constitutional requirement for when a convened session must end.

By Connie Leinbach

Passenger ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke this summer is still unknown as the N.C. Legislature has put off funding a rental boat.

The most recent of two efforts shepherded by Rep. Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) found Senate Bill 241 back in committee last week.

It is unclear what happens next.

Service for the walk-on ferry was set to begin May 25 with a rental boat and continue until Sept. 9 but two recent efforts to secure funding have met resistance in the General Assembly’s state Senate.

Meanwhile, if the original boat being built in Hubert by a new company, Waterline, and which has suffered numerous delays is finally ready for service in August, passenger ferry service could possibly start then—if the N.C. Ferry Division has funding for it.

Hyde County Manager Kris Cahoon Noble laid out these issues Tuesday in an interview that also included Ocracoke’s county commissioner Randal Mathews and Bill Rich, former Hyde County manager and now special projects coordinator.

“They’re doing sea trials now from what I’ve been told,” Noble said.

The two bills with amendments to fund the passenger ferry this year are in committee.

The first bill, House Bill 165, which deals with NCDOT highway funding, includes an amendment for $943,000 for the passenger ferry, $62,917 to reimburse Carteret County for having provided this amount last fall to Hyde County to fulfill the local match requirements for grant funds to dredge the Big Foot Slough channel and $362,000 to be used for North Carolina coastal dredging.

According to the calendar on the N.C. General Assembly website, this bill was referred to the Senate Rules Committee on May 10.

A second bill, S241, to regulate all-terrain vehicles, was generated in the Senate (S241) and sent to the House.

This bill added the passenger ferry funding amendment and again passed the House and was sent back to the Senate in late May. But the Senate did not concur with this bill on June 1 and a conference committee, to hammer out differences, was set on June 2. They are meeting on this issue today (Wednesday).

Among the Senate conferees are Ocracoke’s representatives Sen. Bob Steinburg and Hanig, the latter of whom Noble said has been working sedulously on getting this legislation passed.

 Senate members have shown two different oppositions towards appropriating this money for the passenger ferry.

“It’s a either we don’t need it, period, or we can just wait for the Ferry Division’s passenger ferry,” she said.

Noble suggests that if the Ocracoke community contacts Steinburg and these other senators ASAP about the need to have a passenger ferry now, we may get some action.

“If our community really wants (the passenger ferry) then we can, as we always have, stand up and make sure Senator Steinberg knows that we really need this and we really want this,” she said.

Time is of the essence because the island basically has five months (from May to September) to make 12 months of income.

“To wait until August, we’re basically just completely losing out on that whole summer revenue,” Noble said.

She also suggested that islanders contact Gov. Roy Cooper.

“It will not hurt us to reach out to the governor, that he’ll be in on our side and advocating for us,” she said. “Governor Cooper came here (twice after Hurricane Dorian in 2019). He saw with his own eyes what happened. He knows what a tremendous job we’ve done rebuilding this place. He knows we still have work to do but we’re super self-sufficient and we only need a little bit of a helping hand to get us back to where we are.”

The sales tax generated by the people who would use the passenger ferry is crucial to Hyde County and Hyde County Schools, which both need every bit of sales tax revenue that can be garnered.

The funding models right now are skewed against Ocracoke because of its small year-round population, she said, but what they do not count is that Ocracoke receives a half million or more visitors each year.

“We’re not getting what we need from the state to accommodate that travel and tourism,” she said. “We need that boat.”

The Outer Banks — these island chains — are worth a lot in terms of state revenues, Mathews said.

Noble noted that we need a sustainable funding mechanism that we can count on because we cannot continue to fight for this funding during the short summer session every year.

Even with Hyde County’s limited resources, it has met all of its obligations under this project: building the tram stops, funding the trams for the passengers to ride.

“We’re one of the poorest counties in the state of North Carolina, and we’ve made it a priority,” she said. “Through occupancy tax funds we have made it work.”

The N.C. Dept. of Transportation in 2017 awarded a $4.15 million contract to Armstrong Marine Inc. in Swansboro to build a catamaran-style walk-on ferry. For a variety of reasons, completion and approval were delayed causing the Ferry Division to lease a boat.

Ridership on the substitute “Ocracoke Express” finally began in 2019, and when it exceeded expectations most business owners on Ocracoke were pleasantly surprised. Last year, the walk-on ferry was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then ridership was limited resulting in fewer riders than the previous year.

“A lot of retirees up in Hatteras specifically take it so that they don’t have to drive,” noted Anna Rucker, owner of the Sunglass Shop, about the ferry. “Customers talk about the passenger ferry and like it. It’s a good idea.”

Even though Ocracoke has not had a full year of passenger ferry service, what service we’ve had has mitigated the long waiting lines at the Hatteras ferry dock, Noble said.

“Every day, there are folks in the Hatteras parking lot that want to spend money and we can’t get ‘em here,” Noble said.

According to the NCDOT website, the department’s annual budget is about $5 billion while the Ferry Division’s portion of that is about $5 million, or 1.1%.

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