The ferry toll issue continues to grow in the General Assembly, with the filing last week of a Senate bill calling for uniform tolling of all coastal ferries.
It is the fourth piece of legislation introduced this session on the issue, but it is the first that did not oppose the upcoming increase and new tolls on the seven Eastern North Carolina ferry routes.
The bill — Senate 660 — was co-sponsored by Republican senators from the coast and Piedmont — Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, and Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston.
The bill is three paragraphs and states "The Board of Transportation shall establish tolls for all ferry routes."
Attempts to reach the sponsoring senators by telephone and email were unsuccessful.
The ferry toll changes were first mandated by the 2011 General Assembly budget. After delays, including an executive order by then Gov. Bev Perdue to halt the implementation of the changes, the General Assembly ordered the state Department of Transportation to move forward.
Beginning July 1, it would increase tolls on a number of ferries and add first-time fees on others, including the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch route across the Neuse River and the Aurora-Bayview ferry across the Pamlico river.
Two weeks ago, identical companion bills were introduced in the House and Senate, calling for no tolls on any of the seven routes. The Senate version — S524 — was sponsored by coastal lawmakers Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Bill Cook, R-Beaufort.
An earlier House bill by Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, sought to abolish the proposed new tolls on only the ferries that cross the Neuse and Pamlico rivers.
Rabon, a veterinarian whose district includes Brunswick, Bladen, New Hanover and Pender counties, lives in Southport.
House bill 475 introduced two weeks ago calling for no tolls included Southport area Rep. Frank Iler as one of its sponsors.
Currently, the paid ferry routes include Southport-Fort Fisher; Swan Quarter-Ocracoke and Cedar Island-Ocracoke. Free ferries include Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch; Bayview-Aurora; Hatteras-Ocracoke; and Currituck-Knotts Island.
Proposed tolls on the Cherry Branch route would go into effect July 1 without legislative action. The cost would be $4 for the typical passenger vehicle, but each passenger in a vehicle would also pay a $1 fee to ride the ferry. An annual commuter pass would be $150.
The idea of tolls on the currently free routes has drawn some heated opposition, including those who call the tolls an extra tax on workers who rely on the ferries to get to jobs at Cherry Point or at the Potash Corp., in Aurora.
Other protestors have complained that North Carolina workers are being unfairly targeted by the proposal, as the Hatteras-Ocracoke route — used mostly by tourists — would remain free to all users under the current proposed system.