RALEIGH — Republican legislators got mad in February when the Democratic governor announced her refusal to start collecting new ferry tolls – but they finally agreed, this week, to let her have her way.
So there will be no increase until July 2013 in toll rates for ferries that carry tourists, delivery trucks, commuters and other residents across coastal sounds and rivers.
Legislators changed their minds about ferry tolls more times this year than anybody bothered to count. They came together Tuesday – reversing a decision they had reaffirmed Monday, when they overrode the governor’s veto of the 2013 budget – in one of their last votes before adjourning for the year.
The decision was well received in Beaufort County, where workers at the sprawling PotashCorp mine rely on the toll-free ferry across the Pamlico River.
“We do welcome this news,” said Ray McKeithan, a PotashCorp spokesman. “And we hope this will be under further discussion next year as to whether the imposition of tolls makes sense at all, especially considering the financial burden that employees and people in this region are still sustaining after Hurricane Irene and continued tough economic conditions.”
The Republican-led legislature had told the state Department of Transportation in 2011 to set higher rates on the three ferries where riders pay tolls now, and to start collecting fares on the toll-free routes that cross the Neuse and Pamlico rivers. The busy Hatteras Inlet route and the Knotts Island-Currituck ferry were to remain toll-free.
The changes, adopted as part of a two-year budget, were to take effect in April. But in February, Gov. Bev Perdue declared a one-year moratorium on the new and increased tolls, citing hardship in ferry-dependent communities that are still recovering from the damage left by Irene last summer.
While GOP House and Senate leaders blasted Perdue, they opted not to take her to court over the issue. Instead, the House went along with her. In its budget for the fiscal year that started Sunday, the House agreed in May to postpone the new tolls until July 2013.
The Senate budget went to the opposite extreme: It ordered new tolls to include all seven DOT routes and to start this week. Senators proposed a one-year delay only for the Neuse River ferry from Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach.
Later, when both chambers resolved their differences on the budget, they restored the toll exemptions for the Knotts Island and Hatteras ferries. But they wanted the new tolls to start right away.
DOT officials were preparing to put the new tolls in place, and PotashCorp workers were investigating the price of a commuter pass, when the General Assembly changed its mind again Tuesday in a bill that made several budget adjustments.
The House position was restored, delaying the toll increases for a year.
“So the rates we established this spring will now take effect next July,” said Paul Morris, a DOT deputy secretary. “That’s assuming the General Assembly doesn’t take it up again in January.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/