New, higher ferry routes delayed again
RALEIGH (AP) — Two years after the General Assembly demanded new and higher tolls for ferry routes along the North Carolina coast the changes have yet to take effect and may face even more delays.
The House Transportation Committee on Tuesday endorsed a bill that would delay more tolls for another year while the Department of Transportation looks at ways to generate more money for the ferry system to ease the need for higher tolls. Those ideas include ferry advertising, vessel-naming rights and providing Internet on the boats.
The bill, which now heads to another House committee, runs counter to the Senate budget, which directs DOT to charge tolls on all seven routes starting Nov. 1.
A law approved in 2012 told DOT to begin new tolls for ferries on two routes and higher tolls on three routes that already charge motorists starting this July 1. Two routes would remain free. A state panel that reviews proposed fees signed off earlier this month but there’s been enough formal opposition to the Rules Review Commission’s decision by the public so that fee schedule won’t take effect in July as planned, a commission attorney said.
If nothing changes, the new fee schedule couldn’t begin until mid-2014 at the earliest. But it appears the House and Senate will work out another compromise before they adjourn this summer to settle the issue.
Leaders of both chambers say they want the ferry system to generate a greater portion of the $36 million it receives from the state annually. The current tolls for routes between Southport and Fort Fisher; Ocracoke and Swan Quarter; and Ocracoke and Cedar Island raise about $2 million. The Senate budget calls for the seven ferries to generate between $5 million and $10 million annually in gross revenues.
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, one of the House bill’s co-sponsors, said coastal residents shouldn’t be punished with higher fees to use the ferries, which are the only transportation between the mainland and some islands. Others use ferries to avoid hours of additional travel time by car for work, doctor’s appointments or jury duty.
“They don’t have a choice to drive. Their only option is this North Carolina ferry system,” Jeter said. “All they’re asking is that they not be penalized for it.”
Senate Republican leaders say all users of the seven routes should have to pay something, just as drivers pay gasoline tax roads to help with highway maintenance. Revenues from each toll would be retained in each DOT division for ferry capital projects.
In the past, decisions on which ferry routes would be tolled have been based on politics, said Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, one of the Senate’s chief budget-writers.
“This is a policy issue and a fairness issue,” Rabon said last week.
Tolling issues grew in 2011 when the Senate wanted to toll all seven routes. But the House ultimately won exceptions in the final budget for the route between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and between Knotts Island and mainland Currituck County.
The Knotts Island exception came at the request of then-Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank. He ended up being one of five House Democrats who joined Republicans to help override the budget veto of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue. The 2011 law directed new and higher tolls to take effect April 1, 2012.
But Perdue then issued an executive order placing a yearlong moratorium on the additional tolls. Legislators said the executive order was unconstitutional but never challenged it in court. Lawmakers ultimately delayed the tolls for another year.
Under the proposed fee schedule, one-way tolls for routes to and from Swan Quarter would have increased from $15 to $27 per passenger vehicle. Motorists would have to pay new tolls of $10 per car between Bayview and Aurora and $4 per car between Cherry Branch and Minnesott Beach. Yearly discounted commuter passes would have remained available.
North Carolina ferries carry more than 893,000 vehicles during the year ending Oct. 31, 2012, the DOT said in a document examining the proposed fees. About one-quarter of the vehicles were from out of state.