Name That Ferry!

Jenny Scarborough
Name That Ferry!

Ferries are named for politicians, towns, and bodies of water.

Except the Alpheus W. Drinkwater, which was named for a reporter, and was the best ferry name ever.

Mecklenburg County Representative Charles Jeter said that could change. The Transportation committee seems poised to propose selling naming rights to ferry routes.

"There seems to be consensus in the Senate to toll all ferries. I can't get a rationale," said Transportation Committee Chair John Torbett (Gaston County). "If our counterparts are only looking at revenue, ads are revenue just like tolls."

Torbett, Jeter and Ocracoke's Representative Paul Tine were all on the island Friday morning to hear from island residents, and to share the perspective from Raleigh.

Bill 660, which would legislate uniform tolling on all ferries, is currently before the NC State Senate.

"What we're talking about doing is going to commercialize the ferry system. Y'all got to make sure this is something y'all want to do. If you're comfortable with it, I will work my tail off trying to get it done," said Jeter.

It could go something like this: "This is your Captain speaking. You'll be traveling between Ocracoke and Cedar Island today on the Summer's Eve route. Please feed the seagulls from the stern of the vessel."

Remember Me?
Remember Me?

Transportation Committee Vice Chair Jeter was enjoying his first trip east of I-95, which is free of tolls as it passes through North Carolina. Despite having recently taken his first ride on an NC ferry, Jeter is one of four representatives (including Tine and Torbett) who sponsored House Bill 475, which proposes removing mandatory ferry tolls and expanding the authorization for the ferry division to generate revenues as they see fit.

Jeter praised the turn out of about 50 residents. The room was filled with hotel, restaurant and shop owners, commercial and charter fishermen and women, realtors, educators, volunteer firefighters, EMS personnel, county representatives and officials.

"If I had a session where I was giving out money, I couldn't get this many people in a room," said Jeter. "10% of the town is here. That speaks volumes."

The Ferry Division has a yearly budget of $38 million, said Director Harold Thomas, who rode over from Cedar Island to attend the meeting. 2011 legislation calls for the Division to raise $5 million annually by tolling five of its seven routes.

Of building and staffing toll booths to generate the $5 million in revenues mandated by law, Torbett said, "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."

The Ferry Division is building toll booths right now. "Once we go down that path we're going to keep going down that path," said Representative Paul Tine, who both represents Ocracoke and vacations here with his family.

Tine characterized the proposal to sell naming rights as "selling out the ferry system, not selling out Ocracoke."

"Is it a complete match? Is it the best? Probably not," said Tine.

The proposed tolls seem "absurd" to Torbett, who said he "is keenly focused on keeping transportation money in the transportation fund."

Not all the funds raised by a motor fuel tax are spent on transportation. Why is this money turned over to the general fund? questioned Ocracoke Civic and Business Secretary Connie Leinbach, who helped coordinate the representatives' visit.

About 50 people, or 5% of the year-round population, met with NC Representatives Tine, Torbett and Jeter.
About 50 people, or 5% of the year-round population, met with NC Representatives Tine, Torbett and Jeter.
Photo courtsey of Lena Donlon

There is enough money in state budgets to not raise tolls, said Torbett. "I honestly believe there is enough money currently there if we are efficient and effective."

There is no major industry on Ocracoke beyond tourism, said Blackbeard's Lodge owner Chip Stevens, as part of his presentation. 60-70% of all taxes raised in Hyde are generated on Ocracoke.

"Visitors love the ferries," said Stevens, adding that ferries and scenic byways attract tourists. He pointed out that idling down Highway 12 rather than bombing through NC on I-95 means more money is spent on meals and lodging, and that ferries are an asset to the state, not a burden.

The ferries are vital to the island economy, and should not be prohibitively expensive, said Stevens. "Restaurants and gift shops depend on day trippers. Nobody will want to stay in our hotels if there's no place to eat and shop."

Hemp Store owner Frank Brown encouraged the representatives to think of the ferries as they would any road or highway.

Looking alert after presumably having had a morning cup at Ocracoke Coffee Co., which he owns, Justin LeBlanc concurred. "These ferries are part of the state transportation infrastructure."

Islanders took advantage of the visit from the Representatives to ask them to vote against Bill 983, which would make red drum, speckled trout, and striped bass illegal to harvest commercially.

After the meeting the elected officials climbed into the Hyde County Transit Van for a mid-morning scud around the island. The next stop on their bi-partisan tour is Pamlico County, where commuter riders are fighting tolls on previously free state ferry routes.

Before a good-natured offer to share Tine's cell phone number, Torbett encouraged residents and visitors to "blister your local representative with your concerns. Call day and night."


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