Long waits for the car ferry from Hatteras have cost Ocracoke Island thousands of visitors and a big chunk of tourism revenue in recent years. Businesses there hope a new passenger ferry will reverse those losses by enticing visitors to skip the line and leave their cars behind.
The new Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry service is moving forward thanks to $6 million funding in this year’s state budget. The N.C. Department of Transportation hopes to start work soon and launch the first boat in 2018.
“We’ve got a congestion problem at Hatteras in the summer, just like a congestion problem on I-40,” ferry division spokesman Tim Hass said. At the peak of the tourism season, cars must wait up to three hours for a spot on the Ocracoke ferry.
Instead of waiting in line for the free car ferry, passenger ferry riders will reserve tickets online or through a smartphone app, park at the Hatteras terminal and board the boat for a one-hour ride to Ocracoke village — at a cost of $15 per person. They’ll then use a bike or rented golf cart to get around the island, or take a new tram service provided by Hyde County to connect the restaurants, shops and tourist destinations.
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“It will save so much time,” Hyde County Manager Bill Rich said. “I really see it becoming a tourist attraction in and of itself.”
Ocracoke’s tourism woes began in 2013 when sand built up on the original ferry route, making the water too shallow and forcing a detour that turned a 40-minute trip into an hour. DOT reduced the number of daily departures from 53 to 36, and the number of cars making the crossing annually dropped from 950,000 in 2008 to 700,000 last year.
When the lines get long in the summer, Outer Banks vacationers looking to take a day trip to Ocracoke are left with few options. The car ferries allow pedestrians, but the drop-off point is on the opposite end of the island from the village – 14 miles away. And the less-busy ferry routes from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter take too long unless you’re staying overnight.
“That’s very difficult for a day trip to spend five hours on the water,” Hass said.
DOT estimates that during peak times, 9 percent of the cars in line at Hatteras give up and turn around before their turn to board the ferry. That’s bad news for Ocracoke businesses, which have seen sales drop by 20 to 40 percent since 2013, according to Sundae Horn of the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association.
“It has taken a huge chunk out of the economy,” Horn said. “Some of the businesses aren’t hiring as many employees.”
Restaurants and shops have faced the biggest losses because they rely on day trippers. Recreation services, such as fishing charter boats and sailboat rentals, have also suffered because the ferry delays cause tourists to miss their appointments. The passenger ferry will give tourists more certainty because they’ll get to select their departure time in advance.
“Time really matters to people more and more on their vacations,” Horn said.
DOT will purchase two 100-passenger ferries that will make eight daily round trips. If the service proves popular, it will “totally make up for” the drop in visits on the car ferry, Rich said.
But will tourists be willing to give up their cars and buy $15 tickets for the passenger ferry? Horn says the demand is already there.
“As the travel and tourism director, I frequently get calls from people who don’t want to bring their cars down from Hatteras,” she said, adding that most change their minds “when I explain that it’s a 14-mile walk.”
In June, DOT released its feasibility study for the passenger ferry project. It surveyed car ferry riders and found that 25 percent of them said they’d use the new service.
But the passenger ferry wasn’t the preferred solution for many of the people DOT surveyed. Most business owners and residents wanted to see the original ferry schedule restored. The study determined that option would cost millions of dollars more – either to frequently dredge sand from the shorter ferry route or to buy more car ferries.
“There are people who are skeptical about this,” Horn said. “They want it to be the old route in the boom years where the economy was good.”
Some business owners are also worried that tourists without cars won’t fully explore the island, disadvantaging the cluster of shops and restaurants located a mile from the ferry terminal.
That’s where Hyde County’s new transit service will help. A tram will run a loop route through the village, stopping at businesses and attractions such as Springer’s Point nature preserve and the Okracoke Island Lighthouse. A larger trolley will take visitors to the beach and the National Park Service’s Pony Pen.
“I would love to see it be free, and that’s what we’re shooting for,” Rich said.
Funding for the ferry and tram service is now secure, with the Federal Lands Access Program providing a grant of up to $7 million in addition to the state’s $6 million. DOT will hire a project manager in the coming weeks to hash out details of the ferry schedule and ticketing, while overseeing the purchase of the ferries and construction of parking lots and visitor facilities.
“Realistically, I think we’re looking at the summer of 2018” for the first runs, Hass said.