NC legislators postpone decision on ferry tolls

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comMay 28, 2013 

The state’s plan to start charging new and increased ferry tolls in July has been postponed for a second time, and legislators have moved into a new round of arguments over which ferry routes – if any – should stay toll-free.

When the dust settles, how many ferries will be tolled? The General Assembly could pick one of these numbers:

• Zero. A bill endorsed Tuesday by the House Transportation Committee would eliminate all ferry tolls while state and local leaders look for new ways to raise money. The options mentioned so far include the sale on ferry vessels and at ferry docks of snacks, Wi-Fi, advertising and naming rights.

• Seven. A two-year budget passed by the Senate this month would require tolls from riders on all seven Department of Transportation ferry routes, beginning in November.

• Three. Right now, DOT collects tolls on the Cape Fear River ferry at Southport and the two long rides across Pamlico Sound from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter to Ocracoke.

• Five. DOT was scheduled on July 1 to set higher rates on these three coastal routes, and to collect tolls for the first time on two commuter ferries across the Pamlico River at Bayview and the Neuse River at Minnesott Beach. That would leave only two routes toll-free: the little-used Currituck Sound ferry at Knott’s Island, and the tourist-packed ferry from Hatteras to Ocracoke.

But the July 1 changes were halted this month, under provisions of a state law that gives small numbers of citizens unusual power to block new state rules.

The N.C. Rules Review Commission formally voted May 16 to approve rules needed to implement DOT’s new toll rates. Then the decision was suspended, and the commission said the legislature would be asked to revisit its decision in 2014.

“This doesn’t end the rule, but it does delay it until the legislature has the chance to say ‘act’ or ‘don’t act’ ” to DOT, said Amanda Reeder, the Rules Review Commission counsel.

It takes just 10 people to tell the commission they object to the new rule and want it delayed to block its immediate implementation. The commission received more than 50 letters from coastal politicians, businesses and other ferry riders who opposed the new tolls, Reeder said.

Under laws that govern the rule-making process, the 2014 legislature will have the option to reaffirm the five-route toll changes or to reverse them. If the legislature does not act after 30 days next spring, DOT can put the new toll rates into effect, Reeder said.

One of those letters was written by Thomas A. Morrow, a Sprint telephone retiree who lives in Washington in Beaufort County. He got the idea from an email circulated by ferry toll opponents.

Morrow likes to take his grandchildren on the free Pamlico River ferry to visit the Aurora Fossil Museum.

“It’s unclear to me why the ferry toll law was passed to begin with,” Morrow said Tuesday. “I think it’s a sudden change, and it affects both tourism and people that work in those areas. The ferries were put in because the state didn’t want to build bridges where ferries go.”

The legislature originally decreed in 2011 that the five-route toll package would take effect in April 2012, but then-Gov. Bev Perdue refused to implement the changes. She ordered a one-year moratorium, citing economic hardship among coastal residents who depend on the ferries.

Republican legislative leaders acceded to Perdue, a Democrat, and postponed the change to July 2013.

DOT was charged with raising at least $5 million a year from riders on the five ferry routes, so it was prepared to implement steep increases in toll rates. The fare from Cedar Island to Ocracoke would rise from $15 to $27 per car, with a new charge of $5 per passenger. Commuters on the Bayview ferry would pay $10 per car plus $2 per passenger.

Senate Republicans continue to favor tolls for all seven routes, and they wrote their preference into this year’s budget. This time, they added language to exempt this decision from the state rule-making process. If the House agrees, the new tolls would be put into effect without the involvement of the Rules Review Commission – and without intervention by Morrow and other citizens.

Because the Senate plan would generate substantial toll revenue from the busy Hatteras route, DOT would be able to meet its $5 million revenue target with lower rates for riders on the other ferries. The Bayview fare would be cut to a projected $4 per car and $1 per passenger, the same fare envisioned for the Hatteras ferry, according to DOT documents.

But the House might not go along. Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican, joined several coastal legislators in pushing the new proposal to eliminate all ferry tolls and find new ways to defray part of DOT’s $36 million ferry budget.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to be able to find the money to offset the cost,” Jeter told the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday. The committee endorsed his proposal, even though several members expressed reservations.

“I don’t think we really want to go in the direction of abolishing all tolls on the ferry system, because we can’t afford a way to operate what we’ve got now,” said Rep. Edgar Starnes, a Republican from Hickory.

If the House agrees to remove all tolls, the issue would have to be resolved in “a discussion” with the Senate, Jeter said later.

“This bill is going to force that conversation,” he said.

Morrow said he was glad the issue is getting more debate in the legislature. But he did not share Jeter’s optimism about raising new revenues with ferry advertising, naming rights and concession stands.

“No, frankly, I don’t think you can sell enough doodads and trinkets on a 30-minute ferry ride to pay for it,” Morrow said.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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