N.C. Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, has introduced a bill in the House that would keep tolls off ferry routes on the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, and N.C. Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, said he plans to introduce a more comprehensive bill aimed at achieving the same end.
The current state budget calls for tolls to be placed on the Cherry Branch-Minnesott ferry and the Aurora-Bayview ferry beginning July 1, and for fee increases on other long-distance ferries. The Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knotts Island-Currituck ferries – used mostly by summer tourists – will continue to be free to all riders.
Speciale said research showed tolls on the Neuse and Pamlico ferries are expected to bring in about $500,000 in revenue, while implementing tolls on the Outer Banks free ferries would bring in $1.2 million, enough to pay for the cost to operate all four routes.
“None of it makes much economic sense to me, and I wasn’t born last night,” said Speciale, who represents Craven, Pamlico and Beaufort counties, districts where the Neuse and Pamlico ferries are located.
Speciale said his main complaint against the current plans for tolls on the currently free routes is that they harm the working commuters who make up the large percentage Cherry Branch and Aurora riders.
“If we’re going to have tolls, it makes sense to charge the tourists and not the North Carolinians,” Speciale said. “There’s no reason that people living in North Carolina here should be paying for tourists to ride for free while we’re paying our own way.”
According to the Ferry Division, about 91 percent of vehicles on the Cherry Branch route have in-state license plates, with many drivers commuting to work at Cherry Point or other locations, Speciale said.
“They are people going to work. You’re not going to get a lot of tourists on these ferries,” he said. “On the Hatteras and the Knotts Island ferries, you get more tourists.”
About 57 percent of vehicles on the Hatteras-Ocracoke route have out-of-state license plates, according to the Ferry Division.
“I don’t like them going for free while our citizens are paying,” Speciale said. “If they wanted all four of them to be toll free, I have no problem with that, if they wanted to leave it just the way it was.
“The purpose of my bill is if you are going to try and raise money off of them, then you need to raise the money off the ones where the tourists are at and not the ones where the commuters are riding. That’s the whole gist of it. The other legislators may put in amendments to exempt all four of them, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
Speciale’s bill is currently in committee.
“This bill may morph a couple of times before it hits the floor but the bottom line is that I’m going to do everything that I can do so that when it does hit the floor both of these are exempted from the ferry tolls,” Speciale said.
He said there may be a need for tolls in the future, but with the current economy, now was not the time.
“At some point down the line, I think any reasonable person would say that if we’re going to continue to cut spending and everything else, at some point it’s going to have to be revisited but certainly not at a time when we are having economic problems and people don’t have jobs. This is not the time to even consider something like this,” he said. “If you’re going to cut, sometimes it’s going to be in your backyard. I don’t see it at any time in the near future, but at some point down the line everybody needs to realize that if the legislature is going to continue to cut spending and reduce the size of government, some of these things will have to be paid for. This is certainly not the time.”
Sanderson said that while he supported the spirit of Speciale’s bill, he would introduce his own in the Senate.
“I’m going to come at it from a little different angle, so we’ll have two bills working for the same end result,” Sanderson said. “I haven’t filed mine yet because I want my bill to be a little bit more comprehensive as to how we go about this. I’m looking at putting in my bill some cost-saving measures to help offset the money that the legislature directed the ferry to raise because I think that that needs to also be a part of it.”
Sanderson said that while more tourists may use the Outer Banks ferries, a lot of workers use them as well.
“I understand on those two ferries out there that they have a lot more tourists than we do and to bear the brunt of that, but at the same time there are workers out there that depend on those ferries for the same thing that my folks depend on our ferries for,” said Sanderson, who uses the ferry to get from his Pamlico County home to his day care business in Havelock. “I’m hoping that we can come up with a little bit more comprehensive bill that will make it easier on all of us that use those ferries for work just as I do.”
The General Assembly mandated in 2011 that the N.C. Department of Transportation increase ferry revenues $5 million a year annually, but in 2012, then Gov. Bev Perdue put a one-year moratorium on rate increases and new fees.
The 2012-13 budget that passed in June of last year included tolls and toll increases that would take effect July 1.
For Cherry Branch, fees would be $1 for car passengers and pedestrians, $2 for bikes, $3 for motorcycles, $4 for cars less than 20 feet, $8 for vehicles 20 to 40 feet and $12 for vehicles more than 40 feet in length. An annual commuter pass for a vehicle 20 feet or less would by $150.
For the Fort Fisher and Aurora routes, fees would be $2 for car passengers and pedestrians, $3 for bikes, $5 for motorcycles, $10 for cars less than 20 feet, $20 for vehicles 20 to 40 feet and $30 for vehicles more than 40 feet in length. An annual commuter pass for a vehicle 20 feet or less would by $200.
For the Cedar Island-Ocracoke route, the current $15 fee for an average size vehicle to cross will jump to $27, and add $5 for every passenger older than 13. For a family of four, the cost jumps to as much as $42 for a one-way trip versus the current $15 charge today.