Road Worrier: Coastal residents defy NC legislature on ferry tolls

Ian Gardner of Chicago, Illinois climbs the steps to the lounge of the Roanoke Ferry during a trip from Hatteras to Ocracoke on Thursday morning April 28, 2011.
Ian Gardner of Chicago, Illinois climbs the steps to the lounge of the Roanoke Ferry during a trip from Hatteras to Ocracoke on Thursday morning April 28, 2011.

The coastal crowds are smaller this time, and less boisterous, in the third series of public hearings in three years on a push in Raleigh to extract more tolls from tourists and commuters who depend on state ferries.

The legislature is trying new tactics this year, warning communities they could lose money for new roads and bridges unless they endorse ferry tolls. And the proposed fares are lower this time on routes including two river ferries that hundreds of blue-collar commuters use – now toll-free – each day.

But the anti-toll sentiment is unchanged and unstinting.

“We don’t want a 10-cent toll; we don’t want a penny toll; we don’t want a nickel toll,” Paul Delamar of Oriental, chairman of the Pamlico County commissioners, said Thursday night to rousing applause from an audience of 250 people at Pamlico Community College. “Because a nickel toll will be $5 next year and $10 the year after that. And as it goes up, the amount you can raise on that toll will go down. And the toll will go up until we don’t have ferries anymore.”

The legislature last year told the state Department of Transportation to start bringing in enough ferry revenue to pay for replacement vessels for ferry boats, tugs and barges as they wear out in coming years. DOT figures that would require $5 million a year in tolls.

Splitting this burden among the state’s seven ferry routes, that works out to $3 per trip or $75 for an annual pass for a car on the Neuse River ferry, which takes commuters to Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. Workers at the PotashCorp phosphate mine in Aurora, who ride the longer Pamlico River ferry, would pay $7 per trip or $150 a year.

These two ferry routes are just 34 miles apart on N.C. 306. And that’s how supporters see the ferries: as part of the state highways, already paid for with state highway taxes.

“Every time we pump a gallon of gas, we pay 37.5 cents to ride that ferry,” said Greg Piner of Oriental. “How many communities are getting letters that say for the next year we’re going to charge you $75 to ride over that bridge? Or $3 a trip? You just don’t do that.”

A plan by the legislature to collect tolls on five of the state’s seven ferries was blocked in 2012 by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat. There was so much division on the issue that the Republican-led General Assembly balked at overruling her.

The legislature’s new effort to toll all seven routes includes the busy Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, crowded each summer with Outer Banks tourists. Although the Hatteras ferry would cost passengers the same as the less-traveled Aurora route, it would bring in 10 times more revenue – a projected $1.7 million a year.

But DOT won’t start charging travelers on any of the toll-free routes unless local transportation planning boards, made up of mayors and county commissioners, actually ask for tolls. These local boards are being warned that if they forgo tolls now, they’ll be required in coming years to pay for ferry vessel replacements from their share of state and federal transportation funds – money that otherwise would go for new bridges, wider highways and pedestrian or transit projects.

Speakers at Grantsboro called on their planning boards to vote against the tolls. Among them were two Republican legislators who hope to push the General Assembly to change its mind on tolls, yet again, this year.

Sen. Norman Sanderson of Minnesott Beach was a House freshman two years ago when he was rebuked at a Grantsboro hearing for supporting new ferry tolls. He saw the light, and survived to win a Senate seat. Now he’s pushing a long-shot proposal to eliminate tolls from all seven ferries.

“I’m asking the (local boards) to delay ever taking a vote on this,” Sanderson said Thursday. “I can’t think of a better branding name to put on North Carolina than, ‘Come visit North Carolina and visit our coast, and have no tolls whatsoever on anything.’”

Members of two local boards that share this veto power over five ferry routes say they aren’t hearing from anybody who favors more tolls. But some of these boards extend into counties where ferries are less important, and the prospect of losing road money will be harder to face.

“We’ve been asked to do a big job,” said Lloyd Griffin of Elizabeth City, a Pasquotank County commissioner and chairman of the 10-county Albemarle Rural Planning Organization board. “A new ferry that can replace another ferry is the cost of a new bridge.”

The state Board of Transportation endorsed the new tolls in December, but two coastal board members were having second thoughts at their monthly meeting in Raleigh last week.

“I still urge more consideration on the process and solicit the leadership of this board to delve into it a little bit more, to make sure it’s the best it can be,” said board member Malcolm Fearing III of Manteo.

The drive to collect more money from ferry riders has come entirely from Republican legislative leaders, primarily in the Senate. But among the Democrats, Republicans and independents who spoke at Grantsboro, nobody wanted to make it a partisan fight.

“It would not pay us to go hammer-and-tongs against this legislature,” Delamar, a Democrat, said later. “This is the legislature we’re going to have for a while. Some members are going to change, but if we want them to try to help us later, that wouldn’t make political sense.”

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