N.C. Department of Transportation officials heard from a number of coastal citizens Monday concerned that toll hikes on ferries could limit school activities, slow commerce, tax hard-working commuters and bust the tourism industry.
“Everyone who understands the ferry system understands this is the beginning of the end for the ferry system as we know it,” Oriental resident Greg Piner said during a public hearing in Raleigh.
Of the roughly 50 people in attendance from coastal communities, most wore stickers with the signature sign of protest, a red circle with a line drawn through the words “no ferry tax.”
Though the ferries in the various communities serve different niche purposes, opponents of rate hikes – retired military personnel, business executives, school officials, tourism enthusiasts and others – became a band of brothers at the inland hearing, clapping and waving signs as people came to the podium to speak one after another proposing that tolls go away altogether.
No one spoke in favor of the rate increases.
Besides those who can’t afford to pay the increased fares, Piner said a number of people will refuse to ride out of “pure spite” if rates spike as proposed on July 1 – as another opponent put it, “dead in the middle of the tourism season.”
Seconding a comment made several times over, Piner said he hoped this was the tipping point “to do something really good, which is to do away with all tolls on all ferries.”
Responding to a General Assembly mandate to increase ferry revenue to $5 million a year, the N.C. DOT is preparing to either increase or add tolls to five ferry routes: Southport-Fort Fisher; Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch; Cedar Island-Ocracoke; Swan Quarter-Ocracoke; and Bayview-Aurora.
Under the new rate schedule, some routes, including the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch route, will be charged for the first time, with a one-way fare of $4 for the typical passenger vehicle and $1 for each passenger. A $150 annual commuter pass would be available.
“I don’t think there should be a charge for any of them,” said Minnesott Beach resident Josh Potter, who uses the ferry to get to church and the grocery. “It’s a regressive approach to raising revenue.”
Randell Woodruff of Washington, N.C., noted the long distance between the Raleigh meeting and the coastal communities affected.
“Unfortunately many of the people that are going to be affected by this are unable to drive to Raleigh to be here tonight,” Woodruff said. “We feel like we’re being punished by our geography. Hopefully our legislative leaders will listen to us and understand that this is not a toll. This is an additional tax that our residents are being forced to pay.”
Other hearings have been held in coastal areas, and another is planned for 7 p.m. Monday at Pamlico Community College.
State Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick, said before the meeting that he hoped there were other alternatives to increasing tolls. Iler, who did not attend the meeting, said he’d like to see a moratorium on the increases to buy time to study options, such as incorporating the ferry system into a tourism and marketing package.
Last year, pushback from coastal residents and lawmakers prompted a controversial executive order from former governor Beverly Perdue that froze ferry fees for one year. Lawmakers later passed a law directing the N.C. DOT to disregard the executive order. During its January 2013 meeting, the DOT’s board adopted a resolution authorizing the transportation secretary to adopt rules establishing ferry tolls.