RALEIGH — Some legislators say they welcome a second chance to decide how riders should pay their share of state ferry operating costs, after a House-Senate oversight committee voted Monday to repeal new ferry tolls worth several million dollars.
“We rushed into the law, and we rushed into the implementation,” said Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican who voted for the higher tolls last year. “We want to implement it more slowly.”
The Republican-led General Assembly last year directed the Department of Transportation to start charging tolls on two commuter ferries that currently are free. The legisalture also voted to increase the rates on three other ferries where tourists and other travelers pay tolls now.
GOP legislative leaders said Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue acted illegally when she announced a moratorium on the new tolls in February. But they declined to file a lawsuit or draft new legislation that might start the toll collection over her opposition.
Instead, the Joint Transportation Oversight Committee on Monday endorsed a proposal by coastal Democrats to repeal the new tolls. It would cancel a budget provision that counted on DOT to increase toll revenues by $4.5 million during the two fiscal years that will end June 30, 2013.
No one spoke or voted against the bill. But four GOP senators abstained from the voice vote, saying they needed more time to consider the issue.
One of the four, Sen. Kathy Harrington of Gaston County, said later that Perdue should end her moratorium. She noted that Attorney General Roy Cooper had agreed that the governor was obligated to collect the new tolls.
“We already have a law, and her job is to execute it,” Harrington, who helps oversee transportation spending, said by email. “The issue was resolved last year when the budget became law.”
The call for delaying the new tolls had more support in the House. A spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis acknowledged coastal residents’ concerns and welcomed the committee action.
“It does give us more time to look at the details surrounding the issue, and provides more opportunities for solutions,” Jordan Shaw, Tillis’ communication director, said by email.
The bill will be considered during the legislative session that starts May 16.
Rep. Tim Spear, a Washington County Democrat who proposed the repeal legislation, said the higher toll rates announced by DOT this spring would cost Hyde County taxpayers an extra $60,000 a year for county employees who travel between the county seat in Swan Quarter, on the mainland, and Hyde’s economic hub on Oracoke Island.
Spear voted for the GOP budget last year after Republicans agreed not to collect tolls on DOT’s busiest ferry route, which crosses Hatteras Inlet. At the height of the summer tourist season, the ferry hauls as many as 40,000 riders a week between Hatteras and Ocracoke.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a Brunswick County Republican who chaired the transportation committee meeting, endorsed Spear’s proposal. But he indicated an interest in reconsidering the decision to keep the Hatteras route toll-free.
“I personally would like to see all of the ferries in the state treated equally and fairly,” Rabon said. “I feel every ferry should be tolled. If we’re not tolling any, we should toll none.”
Randell Woodruff, the Beaufort County manager, welcomed the committee vote.
Workers at PotashCorp Aurora, the county’s biggest employer, rely on a four-mile Pamlico River ferry ride – now toll-free – to get to work each day. Many of them are struggling to recover from the destruction left last summer by Hurricane Irene. A DOT proposal would collect a $10 toll from each car on the Pamlico River ferry.
“I hope they will rethink this and come up with a more equitable way, so it won’t be something that will have to be charged to the working commuters,” Woodruff said.
Perdue called the committee vote “a step in the right direction.” She said she would work with the legislature to resolve the ferry toll issue.
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