Tolls paid by ferry riders cover less than 6 percent of operating costs for the State Ferry Division, and House budget writers want that figure to rise to 100 percent.
"We agree that the ferries are a crucial part of the state's transportation system," said Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh, co-chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. "But in an era of declining revenues, we need to take a look at this - given what we know about their operating costs."
Last week Martin's subcommittee endorsed a Senate proposal to increase the Ferry Division's operating budget by $11.3 million, to $43.5 million. Jim Westmoreland, a Department of Transportation deputy secretary, said the money was needed to meet increased costs and maintain service levels.
Along with its budget recommendations, the subcommittee proposed a measure that would have the DOT develop a fee schedule for ferry routes that would cover operating costs.
Exceptions would be made for students and teachers who ride the ferry to school, and consideration would be given to daily ferry commuters.
If approved by the General Assembly, the measure would not change toll rates in the coming year.
But Martin said it would prompt a much-needed study of how the state can cover rising operating costs and meet the looming expense of replacing several aging vessels in its 21-ferry fleet.
Riders now pay tolls only on ferries from Ocracoke to Cedar Island and to Swan Quarter ($15 per car), and between Fort Fisher and Southport ($5).
North Carolina's other four routes are toll-free - including the state's busiest, from Hatteras to Ocracoke, with more than 900,000 riders and 300,000 cars each year.
"If there is an interest in tolling our routes at 100 percent cost recovery, that would be a very high mark," Westmoreland said. "I don't know of any system that does that."
"It's a regional issue," said Rep. Nelson Cole of Reidsville, the subcommittee's other co-chairman. "It's hard to convince people in the mountains that we should be supporting the ferries to that extent, when the toll fees are the most reasonable anywhere."
A 2009 N.C. State University study commissioned by the DOT found several states charging much higher tolls for comparable ferry services.
Although the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries to Ocracoke charge less than 70 cents a mile for cars, NCSU found tolls of $1.65 to $3.64 a mile for comparable ferries in Arkansas, New York and Massachusetts.
New York, Washington, Delaware and Maine charge $4.13 to $13.60 a mile for service comparable to North Carolina's three river ferries and the Hatteras ferry, which are all toll-free, the study said.
The proposed $43.5 million budget would be supported with an expected $2.3 million in toll collections. The rest would come from the DOT's Highway Fund, which is supported by fees and fuel taxes.
The Martin-Cole subcommittee endorsed a transportation budget for inclusion in a House spending plan to be released this week. Along with ferry funding, the House proposal would:
Earmark $39 million to establish Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed N.C. Mobility Fund to help build urgent road and transportation projects.
Cut Global TransPark Authority funding by 50 percent ($640,000). Cole said the state-owned industrial park in Kinston missed a recent filing deadline for a report on its plan to repay a $37.8 million debt to the state.
Preserve $5.6 million in highway maintenance money cut in the Senate budget.
Save $3.2 million by eliminating 51 vacant DOT jobs.
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