BAYVIEW — A miles-wide sunrise spills rose-pink and orange across the Pamlico River as the 7 a.m. ferry pulls away from the dock. It is packed full with 36 cars and pickup trucks, and a half-dozen men who walked on board with their lunch pails.
They're headed for the vast PotashCorp Aurora mine that lights up the river's southern shore, night and day. More than 1,100 people work there, many on 12-hour shifts, digging phosphate ore and turning it into fertilizer and industrial chemicals.
The state Department of Transportation has run the Bayview-Aurora ferry for mine workers here in Beaufort County since 1966 - and, since 1972, a similar ferry 30 miles farther south on the Neuse River, mainly for workers at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station.
Riders on these two river ferries have never been asked to pay tolls. North Carolina's coastal ferries are funded mostly with the same gasoline taxes that in 2010 helped build the $192 million U.S. 17 Bypass across the Pamlico, more than 20 miles upriver at Washington, N.C.
The highway bridge is toll-free, of course. But the free ferry rides are about to end.
Starting April 1, under orders from the Republican-led General Assembly, DOT will collect tolls for the first time on the Neuse and Pamlico ferries - which together counted 534,841 riders last year.
On the Southport, Cedar Island and Swan Quarter routes where riders pay tolls now, the rates will increase. Under terms of a deal struck by two coastal Democrats who supported the GOP budget, the Knotts Island and Hatteras Inlet routes remain toll-free.
DOT will announce new toll rates by the end of the month.
Ferry commuters are bracing for tolls of $10 or $12 per car for the 30-minute ride across the Pamlico, and $4 or $7 for the 20-minute Neuse trip. Frequent riders might prefer to buy a one-year commuter pass: probably $150 or $200 for a pass tied to a single ferry route, unless DOT decides instead to charge $400 or $500 for a pass good on all routes.
The prospect has spawned bitter resentment among commuters in this rural county, where poverty and unemployment rates usually run a point or two worse than state averages, and where hundreds of households have not recovered from the losses inflicted last summer by Hurricane Irene.
"I feel like the ferry is part of the road," said walk-on commuter Richard Paul, 56, looking up from a book he was reading during the four-mile river crossing. "I pay taxes, don't I? So it's part of my ride."
His home in Pinetown on the river's north side is 10 miles from the ferry dock. When Paul misses the ferry, he has to drive upriver to cross the U.S. 17 bridge, then downriver again to Aurora - a 70-mile trip. Even if he could put together a carpool with his co-workers, he said, the long drive-around would cost real money, too.
Paul figures he'll probably stick with the ferry. He and other pedestrian riders are likely to be charged $1 per trip on the Neuse ferry, and $2 per trip on the Pamlico run.
"Oh yeah," said Paul, a PotashCorp welder for 34 years. "I'd certainly rather pay a small fee and ride the ferry than pay a small fee and have to ride around every day in a carpool."
Mike and Betty Elzey of Bath park their Silverado pickup in line at the Bayview dock at least 20 minutes before departure time, while it's still dark, to make sure they'll get a spot on the 7 a.m. ferry.
Mike, 53, has made the river trip to work for the past 28 years. Betty is a 37-year veteran who works in human resources. She worries what the new expense will mean for workers who live north of the Pamlico around Bath, Belhaven and Pantego.
"I hire from this side of the river, and most of what we hire are entry-level operators, basically unskilled labor that we train," said Betty, 57. "There's another way around - we could drive through Washington - but with the cost of gas, you know, it's not even feasible."
A dividing river
The Tar River slows down and spreads out as it enters Beaufort County and changes its name to Pamlico.
Less than a half-mile wide when it flows between Washington and Chocowinity, the Pamlico reaches nearly four miles across by the time it passes the phosphate mine and the small community of Bayview, on its way to the Pamlico Sound.
Historically, the Pamlico was the thriving economic heart of Beaufort County. Its waters teemed with whalers, pirates, shipbuilders and shrimpers, and seagoing ships that once called at Washington.
In 1812, private investors bought shares in a bridge at Washington and collected tolls from everyone crossing the river - 5 cents for a person on foot and 50 cents for a wagon.
"This was originally a boating community with watermen and fishermen, and the river united us," said George Kean, 72, a retired telephone marketing engineer. "You could get in your boat and go visit your aunt in Aurora. But now we're so car-oriented."
Today the Pamlico separates Beaufort County into two distant halves - there's a Northside High School, and a Southside - loosely linked by the ferry making 11 round trips a day.
There were proposals in the 1940s and again in the 1970s for a long bridge near Bayview, but state officials figured it would not support enough traffic to justify the expense.
Kean became a reluctant ferry rider last summer after Hurricane Irene shoved 3 feet of water through his little house near Belhaven, on the north side of the Pamlico. Now he and his wife are crammed into a garage apartment at Aurora, on the south side.
"Right now my friends, my relatives, my enemies, my doctor are all on the other side of the river," Kean said. "I feel like I have to go to another state to get there."
He was one of about 60 residents who turned out for a Jan. 19 meeting in Washington to vent their anger at DOT officials.
"If you charge me 10 bucks a pop, you're going to bankrupt me," Kean declared. "And I've already kind of been bankrupted by Hurricane Irene."
Who should pay?
It was a raucous evening that might have been more so, but for the apologetic tone sounded by DOT officials throughout the meeting. They began with a don't-blame-us letter from Gov. Bev Perdue, read aloud to audience applause.
The governor, a Democrat, said the Republican-controlled legislature enacted "this new ferry tax" despite her opposition when it voted to override her veto of the state budget.
"It is unjust for the General Assembly to balance their budget on the backs of coastal working men and women," Perdue's letter said. "It is unwise and unjust to inflict this kind of tax on a region hard hit by the recession."
Paul Morris, a deputy secretary in Perdue's DOT, said the legislature had "handcuffed" the agency with a mandate to increase yearly toll receipts from $2 million on three ferry routes now to $5 million on five routes by 2015. He outlined four different rate schedules suggested as options by a consultant who surveyed North Carolina riders and compared ferry rates in other states.
"We're not saying any of these are good," Morris told the Beaufort County residents. "They're all bad."
Ferry riders, most of them PotashCorp workers, took turns complaining about tourists from Virginia, who will continue riding for free on the busy Hatteras Inlet ferry; about a recent four-cent increase in the state gas tax; and about highway spending in other parts of the state.
"My taxes go to pay for roads in Charlotte, Greensboro," said Al Hart of Bath. "The Billy Graham Parkway - I don't use that at all, but my taxes maintain it."
He was flipping an argument used by Republican legislators who ordered the new tolls.
'Hard, hard choices'
Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican, played a lead role in shaping the transportation portion of the state budget.
He pointed out that only 6 percent of the ferry system's $34 million budget isrecouped in tolls collected now from riders on three of the seven routes.
"It's an effort to have them cover more of the cost, instead of taxpayers all across the state paying for people who take the ferries to work," Iler said in an interview. "Why should taxpayers pay 94 percent of the cost, instead of the people that use it?"
He cited a $9 daily fee his daughter pays to park her car in downtown Raleigh, where she works at a lawyer's office. Commuters on the Neuse and Pamlico ferries should be able to absorb the cost of acommuter pass at $150 or $200 a year, he said.
"They'd be paying about a dollar or a dollar-fifty a day for the round trip," Iler said.
Beaufort County's Rep. Bill Cook, a ChocowinityRepublican, said in an interview that the budget was a package of "hard, hard choices."
"And unfortunately for folks that are riding the ferries, it was found that we needed to get a few million dollars out of that system in order to offset some of the other costs," Cook said.