Ocracokers still face threat, in Senate, of new ferry tolls

Since we just returned from Ocracoke, I’m posting this News and Observer Article in full in hopes some folks might call their legislators and speak out AGAINST charging a toll on the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry Route.

Remember, there is no way to reach Ocracoke Island except by ferry and their economy is totally dependent on tourism.  Day Trippers, who take the free ferry, are a big part of their income.  Not to mention the cost to the locals when they have to leave the Island.

As this article points out, this is really only an extension of the road system in North Carolina…

BY BRUCE SICELOFF – STAFF WRITER

The ferry toll fight is not over for Ocracokers.

Senate Republicans are expected next week to propose that the state collect tolls on all four ferry routes that now are free – including the Hatteras-Ocracoke and Currituck-Knotts Island ferries – and to increase toll rates on three other ferries. The changes would be written into the Senate’s version of the budget.

“The tolls have been fairly low, and they’re just trying to get them up closer to what would be reflective of the current cost of service,” said Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican who co-chairs the Senate Budget Committee. “Not trying to cover the entire cost, but just a little bit more of it.”

The Republican-led House agreed a few weeks ago in its budget proposal to keep the Knotts Island and Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries toll-free. Ferries provide the only link between the two islands and the North Carolina mainland. Ocracokers protested that it would be unfair to make residents and visitors start paying.

Republicans in both chambers want the state Department of Transportation to increase toll collections by several million dollars a year. The House budget proposed to have ferry riders pay an additional $7.5 million a year, part of a push for $160 million in higher tuition, tolls and other user fees.

Hunt said some Senate leaders believe travelers should be charged on every ferry route. He said the Ocracoke and Knotts Island issue probably will not be decided until House and Senate negotiators meet to resolve their differences on the budget.

“That might become a conference item,” Hunt said.

The 40-minute Hatteras-Ocracoke ride is the state’s busiest and most expensive ferry route, carrying 339,000 vehicles a year at a cost to taxpayers of $9.4 million. The Knotts Island ferry serves 25,000 vehicles each year.

Tolls on three routes cover only 7 percent of the cost for all seven ferries. The highway fund, drawn mostly from gas tax collections, pays the rest.

Rep. Tim Spear, a Creswell Democrat, supported the House budget after GOP leaders accepted his amendment to keep the Hatteras route toll-free. Since other North Carolinians can drive to and from their communities without paying for each trip, he said, tourists and residents need a free route to Ocracoke.

“Anything that might discourage tourists from visiting the island, like a toll on the ferry, would be crippling to them,” Spear said Friday. “We don’t have a bridge there. The ferry is just an extension of the highway system.”

Spear said it will take more than the ferry issue to determine his final vote on the budget. He said he also is concerned about sharp proposed cuts to education spending. School buses are among the regular users of the DOT ferry from Knotts Island to Currituck. When the ferry across Currituck Sound isn’t running, drivers travel to the North Carolina mainland on a circuitous trip that starts on Virginia roads.

Rep. Bill Owens, an Elizabeth City Democrat who pushed the exemption for the Knotts Island ferry, said state spending on the ferries – $42 million this year – is about what it would cost to build six miles of highway in the mountains.

“We pave and maintain other people’s highways,” Owens said. “We should maintain the ferries to allow residents to get to their schools and courthouses.”

Ocracoke residents have flooded legislators with phone calls, emails and Twitter and Facebook messages seeking to keep their ferry toll-free.

Rudy Austin, a boat captain and Ocracoke civic leader, said the Republicans who took charge of the legislature this year don’t understand how Ocracoke depends on ferry service.

“I realize that you’ve got a bunch of people up there that’s just been voted in,” Austin said. “And they’re running around like crazy, throwing different ideas around. If they knew our situation and knew how fragile our little economy is, I think they would think differently.”

via Ocracokers still face threat, in Senate, of new ferry tolls – Traffic – NewsObserver.com.

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