Outgoing members of the state Board of Transportation this week grudgingly authorized new and increased toll rates to be collected starting in July on five state ferry routes, but they argued that the legislature should require tolls on the state’s two other ferries, too.
“If you’re going to toll one, toll all of them,” board member Mike Alford of Jacksonville said.
The General Assembly exempted the state’s busiest ferry – used mostly by tourists traveling between Ocracoke and Hatteras – and the lightly traveled Knotts Island route when it ordered the new tolls last year. The state Department of Transportation was directed to set the rates high enough to generate $5 million in toll collections.
The Ocracoke-Hatteras route accounts for almost half the traffic of the entire state ferry system, and more than 70 percent of its riders are tourists. A nominal toll would generate a healthy share of the legislature’s $5 million target, making it possible to set lower toll rates on other ferries.
Board member Ralph Womble of Winston-Salem said it was wrong to leave the Hatteras ferry toll-free.
“You’re requiring those that are paying tolls to subsidize those that aren’t,” Womble said. Tourists still will feel a pinch in July, when sharp rate increases take effect on three beach ferries where riders pay lower tolls now. Tolls for each car will nearly double on the state’s two longest ferry rides, linking Ocracoke across the Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. The standard car rate will rise from $15 to $27 per trip.
But the heaviest impact will fall on commuters, who are the primary users of two river ferries where riders are not asked to pay for each crossing. DOT will collect tolls for the first time on the Bayview-Aurora ferry on the Pamlico River, built in the 1970s for PotashCorp employees at Aurora, and the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach ferry on the Neuse River, which serves Havelock and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station workers.
Single-trip tolls will be $4 per car plus $1 per rider on the Cherry Branch ferry, and $10 per car plus $2 per rider on the Bayview ferry.
Workers who now drive solo in their cars will find new incentives to carpool, and to buy one-year commuter passes, instead of paying tolls every day.
“People are going to do their math,” said Paul Morris, DOT deputy secretary for transit.
A commuter car pass – ranging from $150 for Cherry Branch to $300 for the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferries – will cover a car and driver. Passenger passes are $25 (Cherry Branch), $50 (Bayview) and $75 (Swan Quarter and Cedar Island).
Tom Watts of Oriental makes five round trips each week on the Cherry Branch ferry. He’ll get one of those $150 passes.
“My employer here said he would buy the pass for me,” said Watts, 49, dock master at the Matthews Point Marina near Havelock. “But if he didn’t, I would buy it.”
The vehicle toll covers the driver. Passengers in each car also will pay tolls on all five routes. Children under 12 are not charged, and seniors 65 and older get a 10 percent discount on all tolls and passes.
DOT previously offered passes for frequent travelers, with each pass issued for a specific car. It was good for any driver who used it.
That will change under the system taking effect July 1. The new vehicle passes will be issued to specific drivers, who will be asked to show identification when they board the ferries. A driver with a car pass can travel in any car.
“As long as the owner of a car pass is in the car, then any car can go,” Morris said.
That means some commuters will face new decisions as they calculate the cost of driving to work.
If three PotashCorp. workers drive together and use the Bayview-Aurora ferry each day, one of them will have to buy a vehicle pass for $200, and the other two will need to have passenger passes at $50 apiece – in all, a combined expense of $300.
The three carpoolers might agree to split the cost of passes at $100 each. The alternative, driving their cars separately, would cost them $200 apiece.
The transportation board members objecting to the new ferry tolls are appointees of former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. Most of them are expected to be replaced in coming weeks by appointees of Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican.