Sen. Bill Rabon wants the state to stop letting Ocracoke Island residents go to the front of the line for free at the busy ferry dock – and to start collecting $150 a year from anybody willing to pay for priority boarding.
The Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday endorsed Rabon’s proposal to sell a pass that would provide priority boarding on all state ferries. Just as some airline passengers pay extra to board their flights first, many tourists and other travelers would pay for assurance that they won’t wait hours for a place on the next boat, he said.
“People down east tell me they’re worried about stepping on the tourists’ toes,” said Rabon, a Republican from Southport. “Right now the tourists have sore toes, because only the locals can jump in front of the line. Locals already have priority.”
The state Department of Transportation gives priority passes free of charge for two kinds of regular riders on the state’s busy Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry: Ocracoke residents and commercial vendors that make at least two trips a week to Ocracoke. At the height of summer, tourists sometimes wait in line for hours at the dock – while several ferry boats fill up with cars and depart – until it’s their turn to board.
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Rabon’s bill would forbid DOT to give free passes to let any passengers go to the head of the line. It would authorize $150-per-year passes for “individual passengers” – although at the committee meeting he said one pass would cover all the riders in a vehicle.
Ocracokers and their House allies have fought off past efforts by Rabon and other Senate Republicans to start collecting tolls on the Hatteras ferry. Island residents say they need free passage and free priority passes for their routine shopping and medical trips to the Dare County Outer Banks.
“Sometimes there’s 400 cars lined up to go across there,” John Fletcher of Ocracoke, a Hyde County commissioner, said by phone after the meeting. Without a priority pass, he said, “you’d have to wait sometimes for four or five boats to go across.”
Fletcher said it would be unfair to make island residents pay $150.
“A lot of the people who live on the island are not well off by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
The priority pass proposal – which goes next to the Senate Finance Committee – won unanimous support from the Transportation Committee.
“I like the concept, but I think you’re under-charging for it,” Sen. Ralph Hise Jr., a Republican from Spruce Pine, told Rabon.
Rabon said the proposal was inspired by complaints from a wealthy Brunswick County resident who owns two houses on Ocracoke and doesn’t like to wait for the ferry.
“He said ... ‘It burns me up to go down there and let some folks jump in line ahead of me and get on that boat, and for me to have to wait an hour and a half,’” Rabon said. “‘I’m more than willing to pay – and anybody that doesn’t want to pay, get in line behind me.’”
Rental car taxes would fund ports and airports
The Senate Transportation Committee endorsed a proposal Wednesday to divert about $67 million a year in state car rental taxes to the transportation budget – where most of it would be reserved for capital improvements at seaports and airports.
The state’s General Fund, which covers non-transportation needs, now collects the 8 percent tax on short-term car rentals.
“This bill would move those fees into the transportation budget, where it should have been all along,” said Sen. Bill Rabon, a Republican from Southport who sponsored the bill.
Rabon’s bill would send $35 million of the money to the State Ports Authority and $21 million to the Department of Transportation Aviation Division each year. The Wilmington and Morehead City ports rely on fees from shippers but do not get regular funding from the state.
“North Carolina is the only state on the East Coast that does not have a revenue stream for our ports,” Rabon said.
This year, the Ports Authority has requested a one-time state grant of $75 million for improvements at the Wilmington port.