Jenny Scarborough
Islanders want to ax ferry tolls


New and increased fees will take effect on five of the North Carolina Ferry Division’s seven routes beginning April 1, 2012.  The only question that remains is which routes will pay at what rates.  About 150 Ocracoke Island residents came out on a blustery January night to express discontent with the proposed tolls.

    The 2012 budget passed by the North Carolina General Assembly mandates that the Board of Transportation shall “establish tolls for all ferry routes, except for the Ocracoke/Hatteras Ferry and the Knotts Island Ferry.”  

    Deputy Secretary for Transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation Paul Morris said,  “No one in the DOT wanted to do this.”  People in the agency, he said, “share your anxiety and frustration about the material impact this will have on the economy.”  

    Morris emphasized that his agency is “in handcuffs” and has “no latitude whatsoever.”  The constraints placed by the legislation specify that the DOT annually raise five million dollars  “specifically from raising tolls on these five [ferry] routes.”  “I have no authority to do anything but implement it,” said Morris.  

    During the public comment and question period not a single citizen expressed support of the new fees. 

    “I feel strongly there should be no tolls on any of these ferries,” said native Ocracoker Reginald O’Neal.  The state should seek to “collect revenue from the whole US, not just one island which is 13 miles long and 3 miles wide.”  He suggested the NCDOT toll one of the interstates passing through North Carolina, to distribute the burden and enlarge the base of people being assessed the new fee.  “It’s wrong. I’m telling you, it’s not right,” concluded O’Neal to a round of applause.

    Former Director of the Ferry Division Jerry Gaskill, a resident of Cedar Island, said the legislation was “a vote to take money out of coastal counties.”  

    Retail business owner Teresa O’Neal also spoke with emotion.  “We are a totally tourist driven economy.  It is hard to survive here.”  She is concerned that “people will go someplace else” due to significantly increased tolls. Ocracoke is being unfairly “picked out,” said O’Neal.  “Don’t ask this of this little group of people.”

    The chair of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners, Sharon Spencer, said she was “ashamed of the government I work for, to push something so unfair on our citizens.”  Spencer characterized the ferry as “the road to Ocracoke.”

    Bookstore owner Leslie Lanier was “so disheartened there is not one legislator at this meeting.”  

    Like Teresa O’Neal and Lanier, Frank Brown owns a retail business on Ocracoke.  The ferry system should be viewed as an asset to the state tourist industry, he said.  Five million dollars is less than a quarter of one percent of the $1.86 billion budget for state roads, said Brown.  "This is the wrong thing to do to coastal economies.  The ferry system has always been considered part of the North Carolina highway system, and it should be treated as such"  he said.

    Resident Mary Haggerty had prepared a statement.  She pointed out that “the route through Hatteras is often unsafe and often impassable.”  She referenced the frequently washed out S curves north of Rodanthe, the instability of the temporary bridge installed over an inlet created by Hurricane Irene, and the uncertain fate of the Oregon Inlet bridge.  “People on Ocracoke deserve a free route, but a free, safe and dependable route.  Until that’s guaranteed there should be no new fees,” Haggerty concluded, to more applause.
    The models proposed by DOT create fares on two previously free ferry routes, in Cherry Branch and Bayview, and raise fees on the Southport river route and the two routes crossing Pamlico Sound, both of which serve Ocracoke.  In all models, tolls for the sound ferries approximately double the current per ride fee of $15 for a passenger car.  

    Some models charge $5 per passenger in addition to a vehicle fee.  Others charge a higher vehicle fee, but not for additional passengers. 

     The greatest variation between models is the cost of commuter passes.  A commuter pass for just the Pamlico sound routes could cost $300.  In other models, only system wide commuter passes are offered, for $500.  Commuter passes will probably be attached to people, rather than vehicles. 

    Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas said the agency is “totally undecided” about which model to use.  “We wanted feedback from the citizens of North Carolina,” said Thomas, and they are open to changing the models if warranted by public comment.  “We want to implement something that will cause the least amount of hardship,” said Thomas.

    With 3 million users a year, the Hatteras ferry accounts for 1/3 of  all passengers on North Carolina ferries.  By excluding the Hatteras and Knott’s Island routes from fees, a greater burden is placed on the five tolled routes, said Morris.  

    “We have spent considerable time discussing all types of scenarios and examining options,” said Morris.  The hard truth, he said, “is that if we cut it in one space, you have to appreciate that someone else will pick up the difference.”  

    According to the agency’s models, based on surveys of ferry riders, tourists are the most willing to pay.   Tourists make up the “vast majority of users” on NC ferries, said Morris.    

    Many of the current exemptions to fees, such as doctor’s appointments, for school trips, and county business,  will no longer be allowed under the new fee system.  “We are reviewing eliminating historic exemptions,” said Morris.  The only exemptions likely to be allowed are for EMS service.  

    None of the models considered an exemption to fees for vehicles holding a Priority Loading Pass, which are issued to people who provide documentation that Ocracoke is their primary residence.
    The seven ferry routes in NC make it the 2nd largest public ferry system in the US, after Washington State.  It is the only state in the country that has free ferries.

    Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the budget which included the Appropriations Act, but was overridden by the General Assembly.  In a letter to the citizens of Ocracoke, Perdue expressed regret that she couldn’t attend the meeting, affirmed her commitment to low cost ferries, and called the tax “excessive and discriminatory.”  

    *Gossip Alert!*  Bev paid ferry tolls to visit Ocracoke in the summer of 2010, when one of her children was married on the island.  

    The meeting’s allotted time ended before Ocracoke resident Robert Raborn had time to make his comment.  I’ve got his number, so I called him.  “Leslie Lanier made the point that people who live here aren’t rich,” said Raborn.  “The people who vacation here aren’t rich either,” and they come on vacation with a budget, he said.

    Raborn is a former student of economics.  Suppose 60% of the $5 million the ferry division must raise comes from the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island routes, said Raborn.  That’s $3 million out of islanders pockets, he claims.  Here’s how he understands it:  vacationers arrive with a budget.  If you bring $1000 in spending money for a weeks vacation, you’re not suddenly going to make it $1070 just to account for ferry tolls.  Whatever money visitors spend on ferry tolls is money they will not spend on the island, Raborn insists.  And that, he says, can have a large impact on an already fragile economy.  

    Jerry Gaskill, Ocracoke Commissioner Darlene Styron and former Commissioner David Styron (no relation? Someone on Ocracoke knows for sure.  Not me. ) as well as Deputy Director Morris all encouraged citizens to take their concerns to elected representatives.  The only thing that will change ferry fees is for the General Assembly to change the law.  

    “Send a message to the legislative delegation,” said Gaskill.  

    “People should stick together and put their foot down,” said  David.

    “We need to express how we feel to the legislature,” said Darlene.

    “You are the ones that have the power and authority to go to the legislature,” said Morris.

    Although Morris refused to speculate, he would say there is talk in Raleigh that some members of the Coastal delegation have expressed interest in convening meetings in regard to the new and increased ferry tolls.

    The DOT encourages public comment until mid-February.  To review the proposed fee changes and offer feedback, ask a friend who attended the meeting.  Or contact Mr. Jamille A. Robbins by email at or phone (919) 707-6085.