Newly approved changes in tolling for the state’s ferries haven’t likely put an end to the issue.
The N.C. Board of Transportation approved at its January meeting adding fares or increasing existing tolls on five of North Carolina’s seven ferry routes.
The board acted to meet a 2011 General Assembly mandate to the N.C. Department of Transportation to increase ferry revenue by $5 million a year annually. A moratorium on any rate increases by former Gov. Beverly Perdue kept fee changes from going into effect last year.
While the newly approved rates are to take effect July 1, there is indication from area legislators that the issue remains up for discussion.
"It’s not a done deal," said Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, whose district includes Carteret, Craven and Pamlico counties, where two ferry routes are located.
Sanderson said he expects the issue to get further discussion when the General Assembly convenes again at the end of January.
Under the approved fee schedule, the river ferries such as the Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach route, which is used primarily by commuters, will charge a fee to riders for the first time.
Sanderson sees the ferries as an extension of the state’s highway system and said he knows personally the importance of the ferry route to area residents traveling to and from work at locations such as Cherry Point in Havelock or schools and medical facilities.
"They are very important to people going to and from Cherry Point or other points around Carteret and Craven counties," he said.
He doesn’t think there should be a fee.
One-way fares to be established for the Cherry Branch route are $1 for car passengers and pedestrians; $2 for bicycles/ $3 for motorcycles; $4 for vehicles less than 20 feet; $8 for vehicles 20 to 40 feet ; and $12 for vehicles more than 40 feet.
Annual commuter passes will also be available. At the Cherry Branch route the approved rates are $25 for pedestrian/passenger; $150 for bicycles, motorcycle and vehicles less than 20 feet; $200 for vehicles 20 to 40 feet; and $250 for vehicles larger than 40 feet.
Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow County, said the option of a yearly pass at a reasonable price is important if commuters are to be charged. He said they shouldn’t have to pay every time they use the ferry.
"For the locals, I’ve always had a concern," he said.
Brown also expects the issue to come up for discussion again in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
Also part of the discussion is the increase of fees on some of the state’s sound-class ferries, which are used primarily by tourists, and lack of fares on others.
The ferry routes between Cedar Island and Ocracoke and Swan Quarter to Ocracoke are slated to increase. No fares exist for the Currituck-Knotts Island or the Ocracoke-Hatteras route, which has the largest number of riders in the state.
The General Assembly’s 2011 mandate stated there be no fees established on the two routes, something that has been criticized.
Brown said it’s an issue of fairness.
"If you are going to put a fare on one, you have to put a toll on all," he said.
Sanderson said he would rather not see a toll on any of the ferries.
"I really don’t want to see fees go up on the Outer Banks ferries either. I think it will be detrimental to tourism," he said.
The current $15 fee for an average size vehicle to cross one-way 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.
Sanderson said he’d rather not see tolls at all and now is not the time to be adding fees.
"It’s a very bad time to be charging people extra money. Our economy still has a long way to go," he said.
Sanderson said there are transportation needs across the state and they need to look at the whole transportation department.
Meanwhile, the Ferry Division will be adding a new ramp to the Cherry Branch side of the Neuse River. The construction is not related to any fee structure.
The reason behind the new ramp will be to allow vehicles easier access to the ferry during times when high winds may cause water levels to increase or decrease.