Boats, Channels, and Ferry Tolls

Rob Temple

It takes a lot of meetings to keep life in this little offshore community running smoothly. 

On Monday, January 29th, two important ones were held at the Community Center and, since the Current’s more civically savvy contributors were occupied elsewhere (Sundae working at her new job as branch librarian and Crystal off the island having a baby!) it once again fell to yours truly to duck into the phone booth and re-emerge as Clark Kent, reporter at large.

The first gathering was the N.C. Ferry Division’s bi-monthly public meeting chaired by Chris Bock held at 3pm and followed at 5:30 by the monthly meeting of the Ocracoke Waterways Commission chaired by David Hilton. Not surprisingly, there was considerable overlap in the attendees.

I’d prepared for both meetings by reading a Coastal Review Online article about the state legislature’s Program Evaluation Division’s 45-page report on saving $1.5 million by limiting off-season ferry crossings and raising $1.7 million by increasing existing tolls. (I read the article, not the 45-page report!) I therefore wasn’t totally clueless as Mr. Bock explained that the ferry division was already pretty much in compliance with the study’s recommendations, having significantly cut back on off-season Hatteras – Ocracoke runs. Toll increases are a different kettle of fish, so to speak.

As everyone agreed, the good news in the study is that it makes no mention of adding tolls to the Hatteras Inlet route so the folks in Raleigh appear to have gotten the message that such tolls are off the table.  When this subject came up again in the Waterways Commission meeting, there was general agreement that some incremental increase in existing tolls is not unreasonable. In fact, somewhat remarkably, there seemed to be a lot of general agreement at both meetings with a notable absence of tears, recriminations, hyperventilation, etc. The report’s proposed $15 increase on the sound ferry routes between Ocracoke and Swan Quarter or Cedar Island (doubling the existing rate) was felt to be a bit excessive with an initial increase of only $5 suggested.

Chris Bock reported that construction is well underway on the new passenger-only ferry, which is now expected to be in service before the end of the summer. While various challenges to the new operation were discussed (like the assumption that most passengers will want to come over on the first ferry and return on the last, there may be low occupancy on the interim trips and what happens when the weather turns bad and return trips are cancelled), Chris expressed the view that these things will be worked out over time. The passenger ferry operation has been subcontracted to H.M.S., a nation-wide company with considerable experience in such undertakings.

For the past few years, (up until a few months ago when I started feeling sorry for them) each time I’d pull up to the ticket window at the Swan Quarter ferry terminal I’d ask the folks there when they expected to move into the new building. The answer was always, “Supposed to be sometime next month.” So at the ferry meeting I put the same question to Mr. Bock. His answer was only a little more reassuring: “Supposed to be sometime next summer. 

The Ocracoke Waterways Commission kicked their meeting off with a report from Chris Bock on developments at the Ferry Division. He reported that the recent ice event extinguished, moved, or destroyed 115 of the state’s 600 federally maintained aids to navigation (buoys and channel markers) but that two thirds have been restored to service.

Fog kept the ferries from running on March 4, 2015. It happens.
Fog kept the ferries from running on March 4, 2015. It happens.

Since there has never been doubt in anyone’s mind that there’s an urgent need to do whatever needs to be done to restore the old direct ferry route across Hatteras Inlet, the Waterways Commission is drafting a letter to Harold Thomas, Director of the Ferry Division, stressing the importance of this issue. David Hilton read the draft and it received strong support from all parties.

Steve Wilson, chair of the Ocracoke Planning Advisory Board, presented a proposal to adopt a modified version of Brunswick County’s ordinance on abandoned and derelict vessels since Silver Lake has had a steady increase in such vessels. With the proposed modifications, Hyde County’s ordinance would apply only to Ocracoke's Silver Lake Harbor and would limit anchored vessels to no more than 14 days in any 30-day period and would require them to comply with state and federal regulations regarding registration, lighting, and sanitation devices. They would also be required to have means of propulsion. Exceptions could be made for boaters who are seasonally employed on the island.

Several ferry runs had been cancelled that day and the day before due to fog. A person in attendance who had been hoping to get off the island later in the evening asked Chris Bock which ferry he planned to return home on. That drew a laugh. Sort of hard for a captain to chicken out when the boss is on board!



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