GRANTSBORO — For the third time in a year, hundreds of coastal residents packed the Delamar Center at Pamlico Community College on Monday night to express opposition and outrage at planned ferry tolls, which includes first-time fees to ride the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch ferry.
The new and increased tolls on the state’s seven ferry routes were first ordered by the General Assembly in its budget work in 2011 and would have gone into effect last year except for an executive order by then Gov. Bev Perdue of New Bern.
The General Assembly since then passed session law ordering the overseeing state Department of Transportation to ignore the one-year moratorium and institute the changes, beginning July1.
Monday’s public hearing was the third of a series that included stops in Raleigh and Ocracoke Island. As was the case a year ago, the Pamlico hearing had the largest turnout, about 350 people.
Dozens of speakers again voiced opposition to the tolls, citing a financial hardship on commuters in and out of Pamlico and Beaufort counties to get to work at Cherry Point or Potash Corp. They also lamented the cost to people such as veterans going to medical facilities in Craven and Carteret counties.
Others, such as Oriental town Commissioner Larry Summers, a vocal protest organizer, contend that the ferry is an extension of N.C. 306 and tolls constitute an illegal tax.
When asked about the tone of the public hearings, last year and this year, DOT Public Involvement Officer Jamille Robbins admitted he had not heard anyone at the hearings speak in favor of the tolls.
Summers, along with lobbyist Joe McClees of Oriental, both told the crowd that DOT was not the culprit, but rather the responsibility of tolls sits with the General Assembly.
Although DOT taped the hour and a half comment period, lobbyist Henri McClees of Oriental questioned if lawmakers would hear the public voice of opposition.
"I would be astonished if one legislator listened to one single word of what we say here tonight," she said, urging citizens in Craven, Pamlico, Beaufort, Hyde and Carteret counties to let their voice be heard by lawmakers in Raleigh.
Although he did not attend the Monday meeting, state Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, said late Monday from Raleigh that he and other lawmakers are working on legislation to abolish all the ferry tolls.
Sanderson said Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, was preparing a bill that would abolish new and existing tolls.
"The general attitude has been either all or none," Sanderson said of legislators. "I would rather go with none."
Sanderson said he planned to read Jeter’s House bill this week, and when it was ready, he would submit his own companion bill in the state Senate.
Sanderson said his thoughts were to let money that would be paid on tolling instead be spent by residents in the local economy.
Sanderson said he had been focusing on the ferry system cutting expenses to make up the mandated $5 million the General Assembly wants the ferry division to add to its revenues each year.
Many of the speakers at Monday’s hearing voiced reasons against the tolls that had not changed since two hearings here in the spring of 2012.
Jim Barton, a retired U.S. Navy captain, said the lawmakers rushed to the tolls for revenue without consulting towns and counties and the public in coastal counties. He said legislators failed to analyze the effects of the tolls on working citizens and even school children, who would have to pay to ride to school or for activity buses on the ferries.
Also, he said that with tolls, "We are discouraging tourism."
Oriental businesswoman Bama Lutes Deal urged the crowd to make a personal effort on the issue and let lawmakers hear their concerns.
"We may be small in population," she said of Pamlico County. "But, it’s 13,400 real people who can write letters. If you do nothing, you get what you get. Take action. Make it personal."
Comments can be mailed to Jamille A. Robbins, Public Involvement Officer, NCDOT Human Environmental Section, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1598. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 919-707-6085.