The movement against ferry tolls gained statewide momentum Thursday with the introduction of identical state House and Senate bills in the General Assembly that would eliminate tolls on all of the seven coastal routes.
The bills, including the Senate bill co-authored by Rep. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, would authorize the ferry division to raise its revenue level to replace tolls. Under the current legislative mandate, new and increased tolls would go into place July 1, including first-time fees to ride the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch and Aurora-Bayview ferries.
Revenue sources would include selling concessions, wireless internet service, naming rights to ferries boats, routes, and buildings, and other individual advertising opportunities.
Sanderson said that taking tolls off all the ferries would help commuter riders such as those in Pamlico County and also encourage more tourism for routes that traditionally carry visitors to the coastal areas.
Sanderson said he had talked with ferry system officials about cutting expenses to make up the mandated $5 million the General Assembly wants the ferry division to add to its revenues each year.
“There are better ways to raise money than tax our overburdened citizens,” Sanderson said. “Ferries offer scenic trips across coastal waters, punctuated by the friendly brogue of ferry workers. We should promote our coast, not tax ourselves.”
Sanderson and the other lawmakers waited to file the bills, hoping that the tolls would be left out of Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget.
“But, it wasn’t and we had to go in another route,” Sanderson said. “Wherever we have gone to in the legislature, the attitude has been ‘let’s toll them all or none of them.’ We want to go with none.”
He said time was short between now and the July 1 date the tolls go into effect, so introducing companion bills in both legislative chambers could expedite the matter.
He said having representatives and senators from throughout the state support the bill has been encouraging.
“We have some leverage, and it could come through this bill or through the (General Assembly) budget if they allow the ferry division to raise money through these ways or cut their operating costs,” Sanderson said.
The Sanderson Senate bill 524 is co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort.
The House bill 475 has four sponsors including representatives from the Piedmont — Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston. Torbett is co-chair of the House Transportation Committee.
The House bill also has a Democratic sponsor, Rep. Paul Tine of Manteo, along with Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick.
“I am delighted to work on this bipartisan effort with two inland legislators and Rep. Iler from the southern coast,” Tine said in a statement. “The ferries are our highways, serving our citizens and welcoming our visitors. With high coastal unemployment rates and slow economic recovery, we need to advertise one of North Carolina’s great tourism assets, our unique ferry system.”
Earlier in the legislative session, another bill to rescind tolls on the Pamlico and Neuse river ferries was filed by first-term Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven.
“I filed House Bill 62 early, because it is that important to protect our coastal citizens,” Speciale said. Speciale is also a sponsor on the latest House bill to cancel the toll plans.
The new and increased tolls on the ferry routes were first ordered by the General Assembly in its budget work in 2011 and would have gone into effect last year except for an executive order by then-Gov. Bev Perdue of New Bern.
Legislators since then passed a session law ordering the overseeing N.C. Department of Transportation to ignore the one-year moratorium and institute the changes, beginning July 1.
Three recent public hearings — in Raleigh, Ocracoke and Pamlico County — brought renewed protests against the tolls, including those by a crowd of more than 350 at Pamlico Community College.
Citizens groups have also formed, citing a financial hardship on commuters in and out of Pamlico and Beaufort counties to get to work at Cherry Point or Potash Corp. They also point to the cost to people such as veterans going to medical facilities in Craven and Carteret counties.
Others, such as Oriental town Commissioner Larry Summers, a vocal protest organizer, contend that the ferry is an extension of N.C. 306 and tolls constitute an illegal tax.
Proposed fees for the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach route include a $4 per car toll for the typical vehicle as well as $1 per passenger. A $150 annual commuter fee would be available.
Public comments to the Department of Transportation are accepted through Tuesday.
Comments can be mailed to Jamille A. Robbins, Public Involvement Officer, NCDOT Human Environmental Section, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1598.
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