Road Worrier Blog

June 10, 2014

NC House pushes toll-free ferries and 'First in Freedom' license plates

The "First in Freedom" license plate was mandatory, and controversial, in the 1970s. It would return as an option for North Carolina car owners, according to the proposed House transportation budget.

Freedom is a sub-theme in the House transportation budget released Tuesday, with proposals for toll-free ferry service and the return of “First in Freedom” license plates.

All tolls would be eliminated on the three ferry routes where passengers now pay for every trip, and the state Board of Transportation would be stripped of its authority to collect ferry tolls. The House would set aside $6.2 million to help pay for new ferry boats as the old ones wear out.

That’s different from the Senate approach, which would continue the tolls collected on two ferries from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, and the ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher. A 2013 law also encourages local elected officials in ferry-dependent coastal counties to endorse tolls on the four remaining toll-free ferry routes, to raise funds for replacement ferry vessels.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, said coastal residents pay for ferry service with the same fuel and highway use taxes that pay for roads and bridges. Eliminating tolls would spur coastal tourism and economic development, he said.

“You could actually see a spike in sales tax revenues simply by not having that toll and increasing ridership,” Torbett told the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, of which is co-chairman.

And the House would give North Carolina drivers a new choice for their license plates: Either stick with the “First in Flight” motif that has been the state standard for 32 years, or opt for a “First in Freedom” plate.

“First in Freedom” was the slogan embossed on our license plates from 1975 to 1979. It referred to the state’s proud history in the American Revolution, but it generated controversy among North Carolinians who disavowed the message.

“No southern state was first in freedom for blacks,” said James Flowers of Hillsborough, a Navy veteran who put tape over the message on his license plate in March 1975. “I just don’t like that slogan, and I don’t want it on my license plate.”

Flowers was arrested in Durham on a misdemeanor charge of altering a license plate. The case was dropped after state Attorney General Rufus Edmisten issued an opinion that such charges were unconstitutional.

Edmisten’s opinion did not stop Smithfield police from arresting Walter Williams III of Raleigh for the same offense in May 1975, and did not stop the judge from finding him guilty a few weeks later. Williams told reporters that the arresting officer “told me if I didn’t like the slogan, I ought to move.” He was arrested again on the same charge a few weeks later.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually echoed Edmisten in a 1977 ruling that vindicated a New Hampshire man who served 15 days in jail for putting tape on his license plate’s “Live Free or Die” slogan. State Transportation Secretary Tom Bradshaw announced in 1978 that the “First in Freedom” slogan had “outlived its usefulness” here.

But House budget writers believe it is useful again.

Car owners would be able to choose license plates with the freedom slogan and an image, to be selected by the Division of Motor Vehicles, “that is representative of the Mecklenburg Declaration of 1775.”

North Carolina’s state flag and seal cite May 20, 1775, as the date of a Declaration of Independence drafted in Mecklenburg County. The document was later destroyed in a fire.

In the 1970s, historians and journalists cited different historical events as possible references for the original “First in Freedom” plate. Some pointed to the Halifax Resolves, which authorized North Carolina delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence from Britain, on a date that also appears on the state flag and seal: April 12, 1776.

Rep. Phil Shepard, an Onslow County Republican, said Tuesday the “First in Freedom” plates were proposed by Mecklenburg County residents. The subcommittee approved the provision without debate.

In transportation, the House also differs with the Senate by:

Ignoring a Senate proposal to increase the cap on the highway use tax collected by NCDOT on sales of commercial vehicles and recreational vehicles.

Ignoring a Senate proposal to halt the recurring state financial support for driver education classes in local schools. The Senate would have the legislature reconsider this funding, now $26 million, every year.

Setting up a House oversight committee to review DOT’s progress on implementing the Strategic Transportation Investments law, a responsibility already given to the joint House-Senate Transportation Oversight Committee.

Retaining funding for NCDOT’s Economic Development Program, which the Senate would eliminate.

Shifting $3.5 million in gasoline pump inspection fees to a state environmental program that helps property owners with cleanup costs related to leaking underground storage tanks. The Senate budget would pay these costs from the general fund.

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Road Worrier

This blog is all about getting around in the Triangle. Bad drivers and traffic hassles. Gas taxes and transportation politics. Public transit and other auto alternatives. The blog is maintained by N&O transportation reporter Bruce Siceloff, whose Road Worrier column is published each Tuesday.

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