Barring a last-minute change in the state budget, planned new tolls for the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch ferry are off the table.
Language in the proposed state budget, which could be passed this week by the General Assembly, returns $5 million to the Ferry Division budget. That was the amount the ferry division was ordered in 2011 to raise via increased and new tolls.
The legislation puts future tolling proposals in local hands, stating that a written resolution requesting tolls on a local route would be needed from the area’s transportation planning organization.
Those opposing the tolls, such as Greg Piner of Oriental, don’t think that is likely. Piner and Oriental Commissioner Larry Summers have been outspoken opponents of tolls through the grassroots group Don’t Tax Our Highway.
“Most obvious is that the people closest to the ferries understand the economic impacts and that tolling is not good for the area,” Piner said. “It looks like the bottom line is it takes decision-making on tolling our local ferries from the state to the local level, which has to be a positive.”
Individuals, along with coastal counties, have opposed the tolling since it was ordered in 2011. It was later the subject of a moratorium by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, before the General Assembly again ordered the tolls go forward.
A citizens’ petition and call-in drive put up a roadblock to the planned tolls, which were scheduled to take effect July 1. Had the tolls be implemented, a one-way ride across the Neuse River would have cost $4 for the typical passenger vehicle, with an additional $1 fee per vehicle passenger.
There were several bills introduced on the matter, including one to do away with all tolls on the coastal system and another to toll each of the state’s seven ferries.
The compromise is now in the budget, and Piner said it was a relief.
“It is most encouraging that it is a battle we will not have to fight again next year,” he said.
He said that even after the moratorium in 2012, toll opponents knew the work was not complete.
According to Senate Bill 402, the Department of Transportation will have public hearings before March of next year to offer tolling information to local transportation planning organizations. The TPOs could then request a toll.
Pamlico County hired lobbyists and passed a number of resolutions opposing the tolls. Havelock also passed a resolution opposing the tolls on the Cherry Branch route, which serves a number of commuters who work at Cherry Point.
Pamlico County Manager Tim Buck said he was cautiously optimistic, since the legislation is not finalized. But, he added that the change of fortune was the result of hard work by coastal residents.
“It was obviously a grassroots effort. It came from the citizens,” he said. “The initial call I got was from a citizen saying ‘Ya’ll need to do something.’ And, in turn, they (citizens) started talking to the commissioners. Then, everybody got on board doing what needed to be done.”
Buck said it was a victory for Pamlico and surrounding counties. There were also plans in the works to toll the Bayview-Aurora route, which is along the same N.C. 306 corridor as the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach ferry.
“It is obviously a very positive thing for our county and for our area,” Buck said. “That ferry goes across to Craven as well. It benefits those that are coming to visit our county, but also those who go to work in Craven and Carteret counties.”
Buck added that he was a bit surprised, given the early tone in the General Assembly, especially among inland legislators.
“It seemed there were obstacles that we would have difficulty overcoming because there was seemingly so much support for tolls in the legislature. I wasn’t sure how we would overcome that,” he said. “But, by working together, by continuing to get all our counties together and working with our legislators and lobbyist, I think that is what you see here.”
Henri McClees, who along with her husband, Joe, are lobbyists for several counties, including Pamlico, said the resolution of the toll issue is part of a revamped approach for Department of Transportation funding set forth by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Highway Trust Fund money will be spent using a new formula: 40 percent for statewide Strategic Mobility Projects; 30 percent for Regional Impact Projects — allocated by population of Distribution Regions; and the remaining 30 percent allocated in equal share among the DOT divisions, including the Ferry Division.
Pamlico County is now in Distribution Region B, with 13 other counties.
The Down East Rural Transportation Planning Organization serves Craven, Carteret, Jones, Onslow and Pamlico counties.
“Active involvement by local residents in the long-range planning process will be necessary to plan for strategic transportation expenses, including the purchase of new ferries when needed,” Henri McClees said in an email to toll opponents. “If future needs are not met by other funds, new tolls will continue to be a looming threat.”
She praised local representatives Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, for working diligently against the tolls.
“They joined forces with Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation Chairman John Torbett, Rep. Charles Jeter, Rep. Frank Iler and other legislators to fight for us,” she said.
Cedar Island, Swan Quarter and other existing ferry tolls will not be removed.