Islanders discuss ferry issues with Hyde County and NC Ferry Division officials at the May 16 OCBA meeting in the Community Center. Photo: C. Leinbach

Observer staff report

The passenger ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke will begin service on Tuesday (May 23) and more there will be more departures then, too, thanks to a $2 million loan the N.C Ferry Division received.

That was the news Tuesday night when Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas, along with others, spoke at the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association monthly meeting in the Community Center.

The passenger ferry was reported to begin May 16 but did not owing to a $1.6 million shortfall in the Ferry Division’s fuel budget and rumors had flown around the island in recent days that the current (spring) ferry schedule would continue into the summer.

Jed Dixon and, seated, Timmy Jennette and Catherine Peele. Photo: P. Vankevich

Thomas explained to a crowd of about 60 that additional runs between the two islands will begin May 23.

However, a clarification from the Ferry Division spokesman May 23 said the expanded schedule means that the spring schedule is still in place but will include the addition of the shuttle if needed.

“The schedule for the Hatteras vehicle ferry remains the same as it’s been (for the spring),” said Timothy Hass, communications officer for the Ferry Division, in an email. “Additional departures will be added as possible during high traffic demands. 

All schedules will be re-examined once a new budget bill becomes law.”

The N.C. General Assembly is in budget negotiations and is expected to pass a budget before the end of June.

Hass said the $2 million loan from the Highway Division enables the Ferry Division to continue current levels of service on all routes system-wide.

Thomas, at the May 16 meeting, said the Ferry Division’s budget does not allow for overdrafts.

“But the secretary (of transportation, J. Eric Boyette) heard your voices,” Thomas said.

Thomas explained that the fuel portion of the Ferry Division budgets have typically been between $4.3 million and $6.7 million.

“This year we hit over $8 million,” he said because of rising prices.

At this time, the General Assembly is working on the 2023-2024 budget to begin July 1, and Thomas said the House version of the budget for the Ferry Division is $88 million while the Senate version is $70 million.

Last year, $58.5 million was authorized for the Ferry Division, said Jamie Kritzer, an NCDOT spokesman, and the NCDOT overall budget is $5 billion.

“The Ferry Division budget is less than 1% of the entire NCDOT budget,” said Randal Mathews, Ocracoke’s county commissioner.

Attending the meeting along with Mathews and Thomas were Jed Dixon, Ferry Division deputy director, Timmy Jennette, Division 1 superintendent for the ferries, Catherine Peele, Ferry Division planning and development director, and Hyde County Manager Kris Noble.

As for the $2 million loan, Thomas said that amount would be deducted from whatever is authorized for next year, which would begin July 1.

Islanders were concerned that only three ferries are running at the moment, and if all three are out in the sound, there is none at the South Dock (the north end of Ocracoke) in case of a medical emergency.

“The amount of ferries running could be life threatening,” said Janille Turner. “(Ambulances) should never be down there waiting on a ferry. It’s not just about bringing supplies. It’s also a safety issue.”

The ferries are the highways to Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

At least five boats will be part of the expanded schedule starting May 22, Thomas said.

Dixon said the number of ferries running will be based on what funding they get from the legislature. “Six or seven boats will be based on funding,” he said.

Noble credited Senator Bobby Hanig, who used to represent Hyde County but now represents a new district, for helping secure the $2 million loan.

“He was key to getting passenger ferry money,” she said. “He was a real trooper for us.”

Noble is the point person to help coordinate lobbying.

Islander Kelley Shinn said help also came from the Executive branch of the North Carolina government.

As for the heavy use of the priority lanes, Dixon had told the Observer that sometimes priority lane traffic is all that gets served, resulting in visitors waiting hours in the stacking lanes.

He said that 700 priority passes have been issued for vendors.

Catherine Peele explained a proposal to widen the road at the north end to accommodate a new stacking scenario since the tip of the island has been so eroded that the original stacking area is practically gone.

She applied for a grant through the Marine Highway Program and received $1.5 million for this project, which would begin next year at a slower time.

Elizabeth Dyer, who drives the Hyde County Transit bus from Ocracoke to points up the beach for medical appointments and shopping, gave an overview of their service. To request a ride, islanders should call 252-926-1638.

Among the points islanders brought up were:

  • Bob Chestnut, OCBA chairman, said the economic impact of the ferries to North Carolina is $732 million.
  • Instead of always defending the ferries could the Ferry Division take the offensive by shifting the message to a positive one, asked Amy Howard. “We don’t have traffic lights, bridges, underpasses (like the rest of the state) yet the ferries are an active, vital part of North Carolina’s highway system,” she said.
  • The wording in HB198 in section 23(a) on priority passes is confusing.
  • Ferry staff should inform those waiting for the next ferry when there are delays and when the next ferry will run.

Clarification: This post is updated for the earlier version to clarify that the expanded ferry schedule between islands that was supposed to begin May 23 will not go into effect until a budget is set.

This graphic shows how NC12 at the north end could be modified to accommodate vehicles awaiting the ferries. Graphic courtesy of NC Ferry Division
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