ORIENTAL — North Carolina legislators gave people some hope Saturday that proposed tolls for the Minnesott-Cherry Branch and Bayview-Aurora routes are being fought in Raleigh.
Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, joined Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, at the meeting, which drew about 25 people to Oriental’s Town Hall.
The meeting was conducted by Don’t Tax Our Highways, a grassroots group that formed in 2012 after the General Assembly ordered new and increased tolls for the seven coastal ferries.
The changes includes first-time tolls for the Minnesott-Cherry Branch and Bayview-Aurora routes, used primarily by commuters and by veterans and others going to Craven and Carteret counties for medical appointments.
Speciale, who introduced a bill against the tolls, said the current legislative session will end June 1, and by that time, it should be clear if the tolls are enacted or not.
When the tolls were first announced, the state was looking at a $2.5 billion shortfall but that is no longer the case, he said.
“It looks like right now right now we will be ahead,” Speciale said. “It made since looking at everything then. But not now.”
Speciale said that despite the placement of a toll booth at the Minnesott-Cherry Branch ferry route, tolls are not a done deal.
“They spent $67,000 on that little toll booth,” he said. “That’s kind of stupid. You could buy a nice mobile home for that. That is why we shouldn’t let the government take money from anybody.”
Later, when addressing the audience, Speciale said it was a big issue but he was fighting to eliminate the proposed tolls.
“I have a gut feeling in the end we are going to prevail,” he said.
Ron Seegan of Minnesott Beach said a ferry toll would hurt his handyman business. He has to use the ferry two or three times a week, he said.
“I don’t want to see them charge a ferry toll,” he said.
The lawmakers heard from residents of Pamlico County and how it would affect everything from the Arapahoe Charter School, costing students and teachers who ride the ferry, to workers, military members, retirees and local businesses.
Pat Prescott said the ferry was supposed to be an extension of N.C. 306. She said people in the counties that depend on the ferry system already pay taxes and another one would be “an undue burden” on them, especially since the area was still recovering from Hurricane Irene.
Oriental resident Jim Barton, a retired Navy captain, gave a history of ferries in Beaufort and Pamlico counties. Barton said the ferries are what connect all of the counties and communities.
Larry Summers, an Oriental commissioner and one of the anti-toll group leaders, said 800 people use the ferry to get to Cherry Point for medical reasons and to go to the commissary, and as many as 300 people commute daily to Cherry Point. Ferry tolls also would affect people using the VA Clinic in Morehead City, he said.
Torbett said he was going to do all he could to stop the tolls, but it would have to be a team effort in the Appropriations Committee.
“I wish I could say definitely there will not be ferry tolls,” he said. “I hope the next time I come, the toll booth (at Minnesott Beach) will be selling hot dogs.”
Sanderson said the battle over the tolls was going to be in the Senate.
All the money from tourists who visit the coastal areas of North Carolina would be much more revenue for the state than the tolls would generate for the Department of Transportation, Sanderson said.
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, who introduced a bill against the tolls, Rep. Kelly Hastings, R-Gaston; Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare, and Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, did not attend Saturday’s meeting but did tour the different ferry routes.
The toll changes will take effect July 1 unless there is a reverse action by the General Assembly, which first ordered the overseeing state DOT to generate an extra $5 million annually back in 2011. An executive order by then-Gov. Bev. Perdue put a one-year moratorium in place, but that has since been rescinded by the legislators.
Currently, four bills are in committee on the ferry issue in the General Assembly, including bills to abolish the tolls by Sanderson and Speciale. One bill calls for tolls on all ferries.