January 27, 2014

Road Worrier: North Carolina legislature pits ferry tolls against local road money

Public hearings are planned along the coast in February on proposed new or increased tolls for all seven NCDOT ferry routes, including four that are toll-free now.

After years of deals, delays and reversals in the General Assembly, North Carolina might finally start charging tolls this year on four coastal ferries – now toll-free – that take hundreds of commuters to work each day and thousands of tourists to Ocracoke each summer.

New tolls will be imposed on four routes, and tolls will be increased on three others, starting late this year – unless legislators in Raleigh change their minds again, or unless local elected leaders on the coast exercise their new power to veto the ferry tolls.

The tolls won’t be popular with coastal residents, but legislators have worked out a way to make it hard for local mayors and county commissioners to reject them.

Under the Strategic Mobility Formula adopted last year to determine how transportation dollars are spent across North Carolina, ferry tolls now are expected to cover the cost of buying new boats to replace old ferry vessels as they wear out. If elected officials on regional transportation planning boards refuse to endorse tolls, then the state Department of Transportation must take money away from local road and transit needs to pay for the new ferry boats.

“If there was plenty of money to go around, it wouldn’t be a hard decision,” said Bert Banks, executive director of the 10-county Albemarle Commission, based in Hertford. His staff advises a rural planning board that will have jurisdiction over tolls for four Outer Banks ferries. “That money to buy new ferries has got to come from somewhere, and the state’s not going to do it.”

DOT will hold hearings up and down the coast in February to outline its proposed rates for tolls on all seven state ferry routes.

The hearings are sure to elicit waves of protest from commuters who cross the Neuse and Pamlico rivers toll-free each day to work at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station and the PotashCorp phosphate mine at Aurora. More objections will come from Ocracokers who rely on the free ferry from Hatteras – both for summertime tourist traffic and for year-round trips to Dare County and the mainland.

Public opposition was so strong at similar hearings in 2012 that several Republican legislators changed their minds on the issue, and the General Assembly reconsidered its insistence that riders start sharing more of the ferry system cost.

This year’s proposals are less onerous in some ways. But there’s still no reason to expect that folks will stand up to shout that higher tolls are a great idea.

Two years ago, the legislature proposed to keep the busy Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry toll-free. Now the plan is to collect a $7 toll there. And because it is the state’s busiest ferry, a toll on this route will make it possible for DOT to charge lower tolls on other ferries than had been proposed in 2012. The rates are formulated with a goal of generating a total of $5 million in tolls each year. The Hatteras ferry share is projected at $1.75 million.

In 2012, DOT wanted to charge $10 per car for a one-way trip on the Bayview-Aurora ferry, and $4 on the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch ferry. In 2014, those proposed rates have dropped to $7 and $3, respectively.

DOT also has eliminated an earlier proposal to charge $1 or $2 for each car passenger other than the driver. The new rates provide more of an incentive for carpooling on the ferry.

And the proposed prices for annual commuter passes have been reduced since 2012, down from $300 to $225 for Bayview and from $250 to $125 for Minnesott Beach. Rates for tolls and passes on the Hatteras, Southport and Currituck routes would be the same as those for the Bayview ferry.

The proposed tolls are still unfair for poor, rural communities, said the Rev. Bob Cayton, a Beaufort County commissioner who serves on a rural planning board that has jurisdiction over the Bayview-Aurora ferry.

“The General Assembly has made a mistake,” Cayton said. “You’re always going to be looking at taking money from roads and bridges to fund the ferry system. You’re penalizing rural North Carolina with tolling, and penalizing agribusiness and tourism and the military.

“It doesn’t matter how low the toll is. If you are doing the best you can to improve life for your children and grandchildren, then the state is taking money that could go for higher education – and money that could go for the necessities of life – out of the hands of working men and women,” Cayton said.

The state Board of Transportation is expected this spring to consider ferry toll resolutions from the coastal planning boards. If the state board orders new or increased tolls on any ferry routes, DOT will have six months to implement the changes. That is expected to put off any toll changes until late this year.

Cayton’s board won’t vote on the issue until after the February hearings.

“We’re still trying to ferret out what’s best,” Cayton said.

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