By Connie Leinbach
Ocracoke got a step closer to the return of the passenger ferry this summer when the N.C. Senate today passed a bill that includes funding for this service between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Although a start date has not been set, the breakthrough came today when the Senate passed Bill No. 241 — a bill to regulate all-terrain vehicles but which includes an amendment for $700,000 to fund passenger ferry service to Ocracoke.
The bill is on its way to Gov. Roy Cooper, according to Hyde County Manager Kris Cahoon Noble., but she did not know when he would sign it.
“I could not be happier,” Noble said Thursday afternoon.
Once Cooper signs it, it will become law, but the wheels to get the service here are already in motion.
Ferry Division Spokesman Tim Hass said in an email that the division will lease the same boat that’s been used for the last two seasons.
That would be the “Martha’s Vineyard,” a catamaran-style walk-on boat that was dubbed the (substitute) “Ocracoke Express.”
“It’s ready and waiting for us up north,” he said. “(When) the bill becomes law, we will have to officially sign the contract and get the boat down here.”
Once the boat is here, he added, the route it will take to Ocracoke will have to undergo a route verification and the Coast Guard will have to do “new to zone” inspections.
The Coast Guard requires “new to zone” any time a passenger vessel leaves one jurisdiction and operates in another.
“We have been having weekly planning meetings all spring,” Hass said. “So once all the inspections are in place, we should be ready to begin service.”
Service for the walk-on ferry was set to begin May 25 with a rental boat and continue until Sept. 9, but until today, two recent efforts to secure funding met resistance in the General Assembly’s state Senate.
In the first bill, House Bill 165 dealing with NCDOT highway funds, included an amendment for passenger ferry funding of $943,000, $362,000 for coastal dredging and $62,000 to repay Carteret County for their help last fall with dredging. That bill was sent to the Senate rules committee on May 10 and there it remains.
A second bill, to regulate all-terrain vehicles, was generated in the Senate (S241) and sent to the House, which passed it and added an amendment to fund only the passenger ferry.
But the Senate did not concur with this bill on June 1 and a conference committee — to hammer out differences — was created on June 2.
This committee met on Wednesday and approved a version that lowered the appropriation amount to $700,000 and for the rental lease to end by Aug. 15.
The approved version also added new requirements for the Ferry Division to exercise the opt-out clause of the lease when it determines the state-owned boat for passenger service can be operationalized within 30 days if the cost of opting out is less than the cost of completing the lease term.
This refers to the building of the original “Ocracoke Express” in 2017 when the NCDOT awarded a $4.15 million contract to the former Armstrong Marine Inc. near 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 for the last two years. A new company, Waterline, has completed the boat and it is “currently in the water and undergoing trials,” Hass said.
Noble credited Rep. Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) with shepherding these amendments for passenger ferry funding.
Senate Bill 241 also requires any remaining funds at the lease’s expiration or termination to be deposited in the Ferry Division statewide reserve account.
In today’s Senate action, the bill passed 47-0 without any discussion.