Coastal counties, commuters balk at planned ferry tolls
Posted February 27, 2012
Aurora, N.C. — At least two North Carolina counties plan to hire a lobbyist to convince state lawmakers to rescind tolls that go into effect in April on five coastal ferry routes.
The 2011-12 state budget mandated that the state Department of Transportation raise $5 million a year through new ferry tolls by the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Lawmakers exempted the Ocracoke-Hatteras ferry from a toll because they said there had to be a free way to get off Ocracoke Island. They also exempted the Knotts Island-Currituck route because it regularly carries school buses to eliminate adding an hour onto bus routes.
Area residents who use the Bayview, Cedar Island, Cherry Branch, Southport and Swan Quarter ferries aren't so lucky. Tolls on those routes begin or increase April 1, although the DOT hasn't yet set rates.
DOT officials laid out four options during public hearings in recent weeks, with rates ranging from $4 to $33 on the various routes.
Boards of Commissioners in Pamlico and Beaufort counties have set aside up to $40,000 between them for a lobbyist, and Hyde County commissioners are expected to vote next week on joining the effort.
Ferry passengers also have started a petition to persuade lawmakers to roll back the planned increases.
The Bayview ferry is routinely packed during morning and afternoon rush hours with people commuting to and from work. Many work at a phosphate mine in Aurora.
"I take this ferry to work twice a day, five times a week," William Cherry said. "(A toll) is going to put a burden on my family."
The ferry, which like Cherry Branch has been free, could start charging $10 to $12 per vehicle each way.
"It'd be $20 round-trip, and if I don't take the ferry, I've got 75 miles one way," said Joan Seyler, who was gathering petition signatures from ferry riders one recent afternoon.
"I feel so strongly. It is a very unfair tax," Seyler said.
Many riders said the ferry system is an extension of the state highway system and note that they already pay taxes for transportation.
Lawmakers argue that, because the highway system is primarily paid for through the gas tax, drivers aren't burning gas by riding on the ferries, so they aren't paying their fair share for the transportation system.
Frustrated ferry riders said the tolls might force them to switch to the roads.
"(My truck) is on its last legs, but it still gets 26 miles per gallon. Do the math," Cherry said. "I can drive around cheaper than I can ride the ferry."