The fate of planned new and increased coastal ferry tolls that go into effect July 1 remains in the hands of General Assembly committees.
House Bill 475, which calls for removing the tolls and expanding the ferry division’s efforts to generate more revenue in their place, goes before the House Transportation Committee Tuesday at noon.
The bill was scheduled for hearing last week, but was pushed back because of a heavy agenda.
Several lawmakers are optimistic about the bill’s chances in the House chamber.
Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, one of the bills primary sponsors, is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
“My hope is we can get it into the budget,” he said, adding that not tolling the ferries “makes perfectly good common sense.”
Torbett said that despite living more than 300 miles from the coast, he got involved in the ferry issue because “after talking with people, I just understood it was the right thing to do.”
He said the legislature had to work toward the good of the entire state and not divide votes on an east and west basis.
“We’ve got to get past that ‘us versus them’ kind of thing,” he added.
Rep. Paul Tine, D-Beaufort, said Friday he is hopeful the bill would get a favorable report and move forward to the House Finance Committee, of which he is a member.
“We are hoping if we are successful, it will move quickly, because we are very aware of that July 1 date,” he said.
Ferry toll opponents such as lobbyists Joe and Henri McClees and Oriental Commissioner Larry Summers are urging residents to contact legislators in advance of the hearing to voice their support.
Another action that could potentially delay the toll rules from being enacted came to light last week after an overwhelming outpour of letters to the legislative Rules Review Commission.
The commission approved the rules for the ferry tolls in a Thursday hearing, but it also had received more than 100 letters of protest by early Friday. The process of a 10-letter rule calls for a delay for legislative review.
“If the commission receives 10 letters of objection from the public objecting to the rule and requesting legislative review, then the rule has a delayed effective date until the General Assembly’s next session and the legislature acts (or doesn’t act) upon the rules,” Amanda J. Reeder, counsel to the Rules Review Commission, said in an email.
Tine said he was not sure of the procedural effects of the 10-Letter Rule on the existing and proposed ferry legislation.
“I know it creates at least a review, but I don’t know if it automatically delays it,” he said. “The pending legislation (HB475) in its current form would undo tolls all the way, so obviously it would make it all moot.”
The legislature will ultimately decide the issue, which could go down to final budget negotiations.
“It creates a timing question,” Tine said of the letters’ potential impact. He added that there was also a companion Senate bill, introduced by Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, which would abolish the tolls. Too, there are budget negotiations that historically take place as the session winds down. The Senate released its budget Sunday.
“But, until, they bang the last gavel, we’re going to keep working,” Tine said.
A spokesman with the state Department of Transportation communications office said Department of Transportation was aware of the letters and of the pending bills in the General Assembly, adding that in the meantime, plans continue to begin tolling on July 1.
The ferry division plans have included the recent installation of ferry toll booths.
The tolls were first mandated by the Legislature in its budget work in 2011, and then put on a one-year moratorium in the spring of 2012 on an executive order by then Gov. Bev Perdue.
Over the course of two years, there have been numerous public hearings along the coast, with the largest crowds coming to three hearings at Pamlico Community College.
Pamlico County hired the lobbyists to fight the tolls and a citizens group that includes Summers was formed, called “Don’t Tax Our Highways.”
The affected local ferries include the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch route across the Neuse River and the Auora-Bayview route over the Pamlico River.
The proposed charge for the Cherry Branch route would be $4 for the typical passenger vehicle and $1 per passenger. A commuter pass for $150 per year would also be available.