RALEIGH — Now that a group of House and Senate members have launched their campaign to eliminate tolls from all ferries, two Senate transportation honchos have come back with the opposite idea: charge tolls on all ferries.
“I think all ferries should be tolled, and I consider it to be a user fee,” said Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Republican from Gaston County who co-chairs the Senate Transportation committee.
Legislation filed this week by Harrington and Sen. Bill Rabon of Brunswick County would go farther than the state’s current plan, which takes effect July 1, to end the toll-free status of two river ferries and to raise rates on three coastal ferries where riders already pay tolls.
They would get rid of the toll exemptions – hard-won after a string of legislative struggles over the past three years – for the low-traffic Knotts Island ferry and the state’s busiest ferry route between Hatteras and Ocracoke, which is jammed with passengers during the tourist season.
Their ferry legislation is one item on a long list of bills filed this week with proposals that would affect drivers across the state. Also under consideration are bills to allow faster highway speeds, charge extra fees for electric car owners, and block car registrations for drivers who don’t pay their parking tickets.
“Ferries are an alternative,” said Rabon, a Republican. “We can use them, or we can drive around. We save money by using them, and we save time. And the state loses money.”
Ocracokers won the fight last year to avoid tolls because there is no alternative other than the ferry for travel from their island to the mainland. But Rabon said that’s not why they won the toll exemption.
“I think political agendas in the past are the reason those ferries were not tolled,” Rabon said. “More outsider, non-residents use the Hatteras ferry than any other ferry, and it contributes nothing. It’s extremely expensive.”
Rabon co-chairs a joint House-Senate transportation oversight committee, and he and Harrington lead a Senate subcommittee that oversees transportation spending.
Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators filed bills to eliminate all ferry tolls. The sponsors included three coastal Republicans who voted for the new tolls in 2011.
If the legislature orders new tolls for the state’s busiest ferry route, that would likely mean lower rates for riders on the other ferries.
DOT was ordered to set rates for tolls and annual passes on five ferry routes that would generate $5 million during the fiscal year that starts July 1 – about twice the expected collections this year. Ferry officials have said that if riders on the Hatteras route also paid tolls, DOT could reduce the rates on other routes and still reach its revenue target.
Other transportation legislation filed this week would:
• Allow DOT to set speed limits as high as 75 mph on some freeways, where the current limit is 70 mph.
• Collect an extra $100 registration fee each year from owners of electric cars, who do not pay gas taxes.
• Prevent the N.C. Turnpike Authority from sending bills to drivers on the Triangle Expressway unless their unpaid electronic tolls, based on photos of their license plates, total $5 or more.
• Require ignition interlock devices – which prevent a car from starting if alcohol is detected on the driver’s breath – for every driver previously convicted of driving while impaired, including first-time offenders.
• Double the fine, to $200, for texting while driving.
• Allow the Division of Motor Vehicles to block car registration renewals for drivers with unpaid parking tickets.
• Kill DOT plans to build three toll projects: the Mid-Currituck Bridge and the Cape Fear Skyway on the coast, and the Garden Parkway in Gaston County.
Rabon is the legislature’s leading critic of these toll projects. Last month, he caused consternation in the House when he added similar language regarding the three projects to a separate bill that was intended to speed DOT work on the Triangle Expressway in southern Wake County.
The original House bill would repeal a 2011 law that bars DOT from studying an unpopular alternative for TriEx, the Red Route, which would bulldoze neighborhoods and businesses in Garner. Federal regulators have said they will not approve any route for TriEx unless the state conducts a full study of the Red Route.
Both chambers have agreed on the Red Route change, but there is less agreement about killing the other toll roads. After the Senate added Rabon’s proposal to cancel state authorization for the three turnpike projects, House leaders balked at calling a final vote on the bill.
Now, by addressing the three toll projects in a new, separate bill, Rabon may be clearing the way to remove this language from the Red Route bill – so it can pass both chambers.
“I personally don’t understand the holdup on the Red Route,” Rabon said. “This is some of the best transportation policy that has come down the pike in years, the removing of these three (toll-road) projects from the statute.”
Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/