NC budget gives locals a veto over ferry tolls

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJuly 22, 2013 

— Unable to settle a two-year argument over competing proposals to make travelers start paying for trips on ferry routes that have always been toll-free, state legislators have decided to let somebody else decide.

The new state budget rolled out by House and Senate leaders this week would give unusual veto power to local elected leaders on rural transportation planning boards in coastal areas served by North Carolina’s four toll-free ferries. It gives new clout to mayors and county commissioners who loudly condemned the ferry tolls when they were proposed in 2011 and 2012.

The state Department of Transportation would not be allowed to start collecting tolls on those routes unless it was formally asked to do so by multi-county rural planning organization boards, which work with DOT to set transportation priorities in coastal counties.

“I doubt seriously there will be a request for a toll,” John Fletcher of Ocracoke, a Hyde County commissioner, said Monday. Local merchants rely heavily on Outer Banks vacationers who take the busy, toll-free Hatteras Inlet ferry for a day of dining and shopping in the island village of Ocracoke.

“Quite a lot of our restaurants and gift shops depend on the day-trippers,” Fletcher said.

The budget provision also applies to three other toll-free routes: the lightly traveled Knotts Island-Currituck ride across Currituck Sound, and the Neuse and Pamlico river commuter ferries that serve hundreds of workers at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station and the Aurora phosphate mine.

The House and Senate agreed in a 2011 compromise to start collecting tolls on the two river commuter ferries, and to increase toll rates on the three coastal ferries where riders already pay for the trip. DOT was directed to generate at least $5 million a year in toll collections.

But the two chambers were split after then-Gov. Bev Perdue refused to collect the new tolls in 2012. First they postponed the 2011 toll changes to take effect this month. Then the Senate proposed to delay changes until November – and added a requirement for tolls on all seven routes.

If the latest approach actually becomes law, it will signal an entirely different path. The new budget cancels toll rate increases on the three routes and drops the $5 million revenue target. But it states that DOT has the authority to change toll rates on its own.

DOT also has the authority to start charging travelers on the four toll-free routes, only if requested by the local planning boards.

“It’s an interesting way of passing the buck, I guess,” said Atlantic Beach Mayor Trace Cooper, chairman of the five-county Down East Rural Planning Organization board. “It also gives a little more control to the local level, which we appreciate.”

The Down East RPO objected last year to DOT’s proposal for tolls on the Neuse River ferry used by Cherry Point commuters.

Cooper said it’s too early to tell whether board members would look favorably on any new proposal for ferry tolls, but he noted that ferries are affected in the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula for distributing transportation money.

In the past, when DOT needed a new multi-million-dollar ferry boat, it was paid for with a special appropriation from the legislature. Now legislators have indicated that, under the Strategic Mobility Formula, ferry replacements will compete with roads and other projects for money doled out at the local level.

“My guess is we would avoid tolling ferries at all costs,” Cooper said. “But if we’re faced with a situation where we can’t replace a boat and don’t have funds to do it, we’ll consider it at that time. But our strong preference is to leave that ferry untolled.”

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

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