N.C. taxpayers keep ferries afloat for tourists
Ferries are used along the North Carolina coast by commuters, tourists and even students on school buses. With four of seven ferry routes offering free rides, though, the burden is on taxpayers to keep the system afloat.Posted — Updated
The ferry that runs between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands is by far the busiest route in the state, with more than 875,000 passengers last year. But the state doesn't charge for the 40-minute trip.
"It could be a huge money maker, that's for sure," ferry worker Andy Smart said.
"What can you say? It's a good deal," said Amy McNally, a Virginia resident who rode the ferry to Ocracoke recently while vacationing on the Outer Banks.
The two ferry routes on the other end of Ocracoke Island, to Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, are tolled. Both routes last more than two hours and often run half empty.
Ferries generated $2.3 million in fares last year, which amounts to 6 percent of the state budget for the ferry system. Many people said the tourists benefit the most from the taxpayer subsidies for the system.
"On busy days like Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I would say 90 percent (of passengers) are all from out of town," Smart said.
Justin Eldridge, who was vacationing from Cleveland, Ohio, said he was shocked the ferry ride was free.
"If I had to pay for it, I would have paid for it," Eldridge said. "I would have been OK with it."
The ferry system also received $11 million in addition funding in the 2010-11 state budget, which cut jobs and services from most other state programs. Officials said the extra money was needed hire people to meet new Coast Guard standards for staffing larger ferries.
Rep. Tim Spear, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Dare and Hyde counties, said free ferries are "a real drawing card" for Outer Banks tourists.
"The ferry system, I look at it as an extension of our transportation road system," Spear said. "We want to make sure that the fare we charge – if one is charged – would be reasonable and would not deter people from still using the ferry system."
The state Board of Transportation last adjusted fees for the ferry system in 2002.
Jim Westmoreland, deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said the agency is reviewing its options to generate more revenue for the ferry system, both for operations and to replace aging ferries.
A recent study by the Institute of Transportation Research and Education at North Carolina State University suggested that charging tolls on all ferry routes could raise more than $8 million a year. The study also said electronic collection, similar to the system proposed for a toll road being built in the Triangle, could be used to avoid congestion on heavily used routes.
"We're definitely going to involve those local communities," Westmoreland said, adding that changes could come as soon as next year.
A number of small businesses on Ocracoke Island fear a fare on the Hatteras Island ferry will drive away day-trippers, who they say are half their customers.
"It would definitely impact our business," said Lily Day, who operates a water sports shop on Ocracoke.
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