The issue of ferry tolls has landed in the hands of local Rural Planning Organizations, and more public hearings are scheduled for next week.


The issue of ferry tolls has landed in the hands of local Rural Planning Organizations, and more public hearings are scheduled for next week.



The General Assembly last year put the three-year battle over raising existing tolls and establishing new tolls on the coastal ferry system at the discretion of the local RPO boards that have previously served in only an advisory capacity.



The Department of Transportation has scheduled a series of public hearings, including one on Feb. 6 at Pamlico Community College. DOT will make a presentation and take comments.



Two previous toll hearings in Pamlico brought hundreds of protesting residents and led to the formation of a group called “Don’t Tax Our Highway.”



The 2013 legislation said the DOT cannot raise or establish tolls without a specific request from the RPOs, with the Down East RPO serving as the authority of the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach ferry.



Currently, the proposed tolls include one-way fares of $3 for standard vehicles 20 feet and under, with an annual pass costing $75, which is less than the amount proposed under the state plan.



If requested, the new or increased tolls would go only toward replacement of ferries in that area.



The Minnesott-Cherry Branch route has three “river class” vessels, including the 25-year-old Kinnakeet, which is scheduled for replacement this year. Two others, the Neuse and Floyd J. Lupton, are scheduled for replacement in 2023 and 2025.



The cost of a replacement river ferry is about $12 million to $15 million.



Pamlico County RPO representative Chris Mele, a county commissioner, said she was surprised by the announcement. She said the RPO discussed the matter at its December meeting and requested some information. She said there had been no official notification or information passed to the RPO members about the planned hearings.



“I am very disappointed to say the least,” she said. “I am sure it is coming as a surprise to everyone on that committee.”



Down East RPO coordinator Patrick Flanagan said the 2013 legislation had indicated that DOT would hold hearings by March of this year.



Flanagan, the planning director for the Eastern Carolina Council, added that the RPOs do not have any deadline to make a decision on tolls — ever.



If the RPO does not request tolling, Flanagan said the state would purchase a needed ferry anyway. The money would come from the multi-county division’s budget, part of DOT’s new allocation system under Gov. Pat McCrory. A ferry would be paid for over a number of years.



A replacement ferry cost would cut into money available for other local DOT projects.



Flanagan explained that DOT’s money is now allocated at state, regional and divisional levels. There are 14 divisions statewide, each receiving $34 million annually for projects ranging from highways, bike trails and bridges to airports and rails.



The Down East RPO counties, with the exception of Onslow, are in Division 1, which also includes Pitt, Lenoir, Greene and Beaufort counties.



Mele said the local RPO was still on a learning curve about this new task they have been assigned.



The overall tolling annual goal remains listed by DOT at $5 million systemwide.



“We don’t even know at this point what our budget is,” Mele said of the RPO. “It is a very, very complex way the things have been changed as far as funding for transportation issues. We are still learning about that and being able to comprehend how these formulas work. But, we know that there is going to be a point at which we have to make some kind of recommendation. But, this came as a surprise.”



Mele and Minnesott Beach Mayor Josh Potter comprise the Pamlico RPO representatives, while Craven County’s delegates are Commissioner Johnnie Sampson and Vanceboro Mayor Chad Braxton.



The state’s series of four public hearings include the establishment of tolls on the Hatteras-Ocracoke, Currituck-Knotts Island, Bayview-Aurora, and Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach routes; along with increases in tolls on the Southport-Fort Fisher, Cedar Island-Ocracoke, and Swan Quarter-Ocracoke routes.



The proposed rate changes can be found on NCDOT’s Ferry website at www.ncdot.gov/download/transit/ferry/Proposed_Ferry_Toll_Rates.pdf.



The other public hearings are Feb. 4 on Knotts Island; Feb. 5 in Ocracoke; and Feb. 13 in Southport.



For more information, contact Jamille Robbins, NCDOT - Human Environment Section, at 919-707-6085 or email jarobbins@ncdot.gov.



Proposed N.C. Ferry Tolls for Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach



Fees for individual one-way and for annual pass:



Pedestrian: 50 cents and $20;



Bicycle: $1 and $40;



Motorcycle: $1.50 and $40;



Vehicle under 20 feet: $3 and $75;



Vehicle 20 to 40 feet: $6 and $100;



Vehicle over 40 feet: $12 and $125.



Charlie Hall is a reporter for the Sun Journal.