Here’s the cost to ride the new passenger ferry to Ocracoke — and how to get a discount

The M/V Ocracoke Express passenger ferry is expected to begin making runs between Hattaras and Ocracoke islands on May 14. The boat is now under construction at a shipyard near Swansboro.
The M/V Ocracoke Express passenger ferry is expected to begin making runs between Hattaras and Ocracoke islands on May 14. The boat is now under construction at a shipyard near Swansboro. Courtesy of the NCDOT

It will eventually cost as much as $15 round-trip to ride the new passenger ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, but state officials say they plan to charge less than that when the service starts this spring.

The N.C. Board of Transportation on Thursday approved rates for the M/V Ocracoke Express, the first passenger-only ferry in the state system. They range from as little as $5 for a round-trip during non-peak times outside the summer months to $15 round-trip during prime hours between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

But those are the maximum prices the state expects to charge for the 70-minute ride between the Hatteras Island ferry terminal and a new ferry dock at Silver Lake in Ocracoke village, said Julie White, the N.C. Department of Transportation’s deputy secretary for multimodal transportation.

“It will be lower until we can build up ridership,” White said, adding that the exact rates haven’t been set yet. NCDOT expects the ferry to make its inaugural run on May 14.

The three daily round-trips for the Ocracoke Express will compete with the car ferry that runs as many as 36 times a day between the two islands between mid-May and mid-October. There is no charge for that ferry, but during the summer months the wait to get on can be considerable. Shoaling in Hatteras Inlet has forced the car ferries to take a longer route into Pamlico Sound, reducing the number of runs by 20 percent.

The passenger-only ferry was conceived as an alternative that would also reduce the amount of traffic on Ocracoke. It will run three times a day and seat 98 inside and 24 outside, said Jed Dixon, deputy director of NCDOT’s Ferry Division. There will be racks for bicycles, and the ferry ticket includes access to a tram that will circulate around Ocracoke Village.

Dixon told Board of Transportation members that the state will be able to adjust its rates as demand grows, but that offering discounted prices initially and during off-peak times will help fill the boat.

“This is the first new route that we’ve opened in decades, so we thought it was important to start with a strong financial model that we could build on,” he said.

Passenger tickets are expected to generate about $150,000 this first season; by law that revenue goes into a fund to build replacement ferries when they’re needed. The Ocracoke Express is expected to cost about $379,000 to operate. The ferry will cost about $9.1 million to get up and running, including additional parking on Hatteras and the new dock and passenger shelter on Ocracoke.

NCDOT charges to ride ferries that are popular with tourists, including the Southport-Fort Fisher route and the two longer ferries to Ocracoke, from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter. Ferries that residents are more likely to depend on for transportation, including Hatteras and those on the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, are free.

Under the rates approved Thursday, passengers would pay the following for a one-way trip on the Ocracoke Express:

Up to $7.50 for a peak trip between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Peak trips depart Hatteras at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and Ocracoke at 3 and 7 p.m.

Up to $5 for a non-peak trip between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Non-peak trips depart Hatteras at 5 p.m. and Ocracoke at 11 a.m.

Up to $5 for a peak trip and $2.50 for a non-peak trip before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.

Children 3 and under will ride free.

Dixon said it’s not clear yet how long the Ocracoke Express will run into next fall. Like the cost of a ticket, it will depend on demand, he said.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.