A familiar message of “no tolls” resonated from nearly 20 speakers at a public hearing on possible ferry tolls last week at Pamlico Community College.
The General Assembly last year put the three-year battle over new or higher tolls for replacement vessels in the coastal ferry system at the discretion of the local Rural Planning Organizations.
The state Ferry Division, under the state Department of Transportation, cannot change tolls without expressed requests from the local boards.
Speakers ranged from local legislators and elected county officials to residents, who urged the 15-member Down East RPO not to request any tolls.
This was one of seven public hearings and of particular interest locally are the Cherry Branch-Minnessot route over the Neuse River and the Bayview ferry route, which crosses the Pamlico River.
However, the recipients of the message — RPO members — were noticeably absent with the exception of Pamlico County representative Josh Potter, the mayor of Minnesott Beach; and Pamlico alternate Kenny Heath, who spoke in place of Chris Mele of Oriental. Mele had a previous out-of-state commitment. The RPO coordinator Patrick Flanagan of the Eastern Carolina Council was at the hearing, but did not speak.
The hearing attracted more than 200 people to the Delamar Center.
Larry Summers, an outspoken toll opponent from Oriental, invited the RPO to hold its next meeting at the community college and extended an invitation to DOT and ferry division representatives.
“We have 15 RPO members and I thought they might have been interested,” Summers said.
He and others in the “Don’t Tax Our Highway” movement have long contended that the two area ferries are extensions of N.C. 306. He said there was “something wrong” to toll ferries and not toll the state’s 13,000 bridges.
Many of the speakers charged that the legislative shift of decision-making to the RPO boards was a method of pitting coastal counties against one another. If tolls are not enacted to pay for replacement ferries, the costs would come from divisional highway funding, which is about $32 million annually for multiple counties.
Potter, the RPO member, said the opponents must remain vigilant, saying the tolling issue “will not go away.”
He said the process was a method “of pitting us against each other.”
N.C. Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico, and N.C. Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, urged the RPOs not to act. In the past, each has introduced bills against tolling.
Speciale said he was suspicious of some of the DOT projected revenue figures, especially in the area of vessel naming rights and selling advertising on the boats.
Sanderson also called for the RPOs to take no action on tolls. He said citizen protests had kept the tolls from being enacted last year and that he continued to work on legislation to do away with all of the coastal ferry tolls, predicting it would increase tourism and bring more money into the state.
“My goal is to keep the tolls off the un-tolled ferries now and to remove the tolls from every ferry in North Carolina,” he said.
He also warned of neighboring counties competing for DOT dollars.
“Pamlico doesn’t need to stand against Craven, or Jones, Onslow or Beaufort counties,” he said.
Greg Piner of Oriental, another “Don’t Tax Our Highway” organizer, said that a 0.1-cent increase in gasoline tax would raise the revenue, with the average state gasoline consumer paying 80 cents annually.
He said the proposed $3 one-way fare for an average size vehicle was unfair.
“We should be funding all things in the state using funds from all people in the state,” he said.
He said those people using the ferry were not getting a “free ride” because they pay gasoline tax.
Henri McClees and her husband Joe are paid legislative lobbyists for Pamlico County. She said the hearings were not about gathering public comment.
“The purpose — from the board of transportation standpoint — is to strong-arm RPOs into voting the tolls. Presssure, pressure, pressure,” she said.
She added that RPOs should not trust DOT’s revenue and expenditure numbers.
“They are not worth the paper they are printed on,” she said, ripping apart one of the prepared information packets that was available for audience members.
Paul Delamar III, chairman of the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners, noted that his board was unanimous in its opposition to tolls. He pointed at DOT as the instigator and called the proposed $5 million in projected toll revenues “a small amount” in the big picture of the state’s transportation budget.
“Once these tolls are in place, there will be nothing to stop them from going up, increasing the burden on our citizens,” he said. “Our idea is we stop them completely, that they never be allowed in. We don’t want a 10-cent toll. We don’t want a penny toll. We don’t want an annual toll. We say no tolls now, no tolls ever.”
Charlie Hall is a reporter for the Sun Journal.