RALEIGH — Senate Republicans refused Wednesday to drop their push to start collecting higher tolls this summer from riders on all seven state ferries including the busy Hatteras Inlet route that is now toll-free.
The Senates hard stance did not sit well with coastal House Democrats who gave Republicans a veto-proof budget last year, and whose votes might be crucial again this year.
Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, refused this spring to start collecting new tolls that were to take effect in April on five routes, citing economic hardship in ferry-dependent coastal communities. House Republicans agreed with her rationale and adopted a budget in May that postponed the toll changes until July 2013.
But Senate Republicans went out of their way this week to rebuke Perdue for her refusal to collect the tolls. Their version of the budget included a section that labeled her action unconstitutional.
The Senate budget, which won preliminary approval in a floor vote Wednesday, orders Perdues Department of Transportation to begin collecting the higher tolls right away, with the fiscal year that starts July 1.
And it goes further, abandoning the bipartisan agreement last year that would charge tolls only on five routes. The Senate wants DOT also to collect tolls from school buses and other vehicles on the Currituck Sound ferry, and from tourists and Ocracoke residents who ride the Hatteras Inlet ferry.
Democratic Reps. Tim Spear of Creswell and Bill Owens of Elizabeth City won exemptions for the Hatteras and Currituck routes last year as part of a delicate, multifaceted bargain that gave Republicans five Democratic votes just enough to override Perdues budget veto.
Last year they needed the five of us to pass the budget, and this was part of the deal, Owens said. I feel we need to sit down and talk, because this aint keeping the deal.
If Perdue vetoes the budget and legislative leaders cant get enough votes to override, lawmakers would have two options: go home and live with the two-year budget approved in 2011, or reopen negotiations for override votes.
Spear said he would be very hesitant to join any House vote for a budget that includes the Senates terms on ferry tolls. He cited the concerns of coastal commuters and tourism businesses still recovering from last summers Hurricane Irene.
Theyre dependent on those ferries, Spear said. This is their highway. This is not a luxury.
Sen. Stan White, a Nags Head Democrat, urged the Senate on Wednesday to put off the tolls for a year.
A toll on the Hatteras ferry would make Ocracoke Island the only place in North Carolina that you have to pay to visit, White said.
But Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican, pushed for the new tolls to help close a $150 million revenue shortfall expected after the gas tax is dropped to a maximum 37.5 cents a gallon for the coming year.
Sooner or later, weve got to bite this bullet, Rabon said. We can bite it now, or wait for it to bite us.
Whites proposed budget amendment was defeated in a 21-26 vote. He said he might try again Thursday, when the Senate is expected to give the budget its final approval. After that vote, the two chambers will negotiate on tolls and other differences in their budget proposals.
DOT has established higher rates for the three routes that are tolled now, and new tolls for the Neuse and Pamlico river ferries, now toll-free, used mostly by commuters. The legislature wants tolls set high enough to increase collections by $2.5 million the first year, and $5 million a year after that.
The planned rates vary from $4 to $10 per car on three river ferries to $27 for the two long routes across Pamlico Sound. Pedestrians and vehicle passengers would pay $1 to $5 apiece, and commuters could save money by buying annual passes.
Paul Morris, a deputy DOT secretary, said the Ferry Division could start collecting the new tolls within about 30 days after being ordered to do so. It might take a little longer if the House joins the Senate to add tolls on the Currituck and Hatteras routes, too.
But if DOT also is directed to start collecting fares on the crowded Hatteras route, that could be good news for riders on the other ferries, who would pay less.
Approximately one-third of all ferry trips happen on that (Hatteras) route, and the bulk of those are summertime tourists, Morris said. Without that (Hatteras) revenue now, youre burdening all the other five routes through the year (for the money) that would be required to hit that $5 million revenue target.
According to preliminary estimates aired at DOT hearings last winter, a $4 per car fare on the Hatteras ferry could knock $2 to $6 off the tolls for cars on the other routes.
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/