NC attorney general asked to weigh in on ferry tolls

Posted March 8, 2012 5:56 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2012 5:21 a.m. EST

— The General Assembly's top legal expert is asking North Carolina's attorney general for his opinion on Gov. Beverly Perdue's recent executive order to suspend ferry tolls for a year.

"It is my opinion that the governor's order has no force or effect," legislative drafting director Gerry Cohen said Thursday.

The governor's attorneys say she does have the power to stop the tolls. Whatever Attorney General Roy Cooper decides, the battle between the legislature and Perdue could end up in court.

The 2011-12 state budget mandated that the state Department of Transportation raise $5 million a year through new tolls on five ferries by the 2013-14 fiscal year.

The tolls were supposed to take effect April 1, but Perdue issued the moratorium, she said, to give area counties more time to rebuild their economies after the most recent recession and Hurricane Irene.

"(There's) a lot of the people in Beaufort County and Pamlico County that are still reeling from Hurricane Irene, still living in FEMA trailers," Rep. Tim Spear, D-Washington, said. "They have their houses destroyed. Schools in some places are still under repair and can't be used, and now we want to place an undue economic burden upon these people."

Perdue has instructed the DOT to find enough spending reductions to offset the amount that the toll increases were projected to generate.

At the end of the 12-month moratorium, the DOT could review the economic conditions along the coast and decide whether to begin collecting the higher tolls or delay them further.

Lawmakers, however, could vote in their session that begins in May to terminate the moratorium.

That leaves the DOT in a tough position, Transportation Deputy Secretary Paul Morris said.

"In all honesty, we are walking a very important but fine line right now to get the tolls ready but not start them until otherwise directed," he said.

Without them, Morris said, the ferry system will be $2 million short this year, and unless lawmakers take action to fix that, he said, there will likely be fewer ferries on the water this summer.