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Public Hearing Wednesday on Minnesott, Aurora Ferry Tolls
Opponents Hope Turnout Will Prompt Reconsideration In Raleigh
February 13, 2012

ome April First, crossing the Neuse River on the Minnesott-Cherry Branch ferry could cost $4 to $7. The Pamlico River ferry between Aurora and Bayview could set riders back $10-$12 each way. Toll opponents, hoping to persuade the state to delay the tolls, are looking for a big turnout at a hearing on Wednesday night at Pamlico Community College.

Ferries passing on the Neuse. The ride is free now, as it has been for decades, but the Legislature has said it has to start charging a toll as of April 1.
There, at 7p, the NC Department of Transportation holds an informational meeting and public hearing on the proposed tolls which were mandated by the Legislature last year.

In advance of the meeting, those interested can view the short — 12 screen — presentation the NC DOT put together, showing among other things, the four proposed rate options.

Each option also includes the possibility of buying a commuter card good for a year. Those prices range from between $150 and $500 for use at the Minnesott ferry and between $200 and $500 a year at Aurora. Two options charge a dollar per passenger, two options do not. The ones that do not, compensate with a higher rate for the vehicle.

Of the four pricing options presented, Option Number 3 appears to present the most favorable rates for ferries serving Pamlico County: $4 a trip for a vehicle under 20 feet on the Minnesott ferry, $7 on the Aurora-Bayview. Yearly commuter pass would be $150 at Minnesott’s route, $200 at Aurora.

Why A Toll Here?

All of this is happening because last year the NC Legislature passed a budget that mandated the ferry system generate $5 million dollars more than it does now. The legislature specifically demanded that the money be raised by charging passengers on the Neuse and Pamlico River commuter ferries and by boosting rates on three routes that already charge — at Southport and on the Sound ferries, crossing from Swanquarter and Cedar Island to Ocracoke.

The Legislature however, expressly forbade the NC Ferry Service from charging a toll on two Outer Banks ferries — the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, which the most passengers last year, and the ferry at Knott’s Island on the northern end of the Outer Banks.

Ferry departing Cherry Branch for the 20 minute run to Minnesott Beach.

The prospect of tolls has brought up a range of responses in opposition. In an email to TownDock’s Letters to the Editor, Gail Good of Oriental laid out several points in her opening paragraph, “At a time when so many are trying to rebuild from the hurricane… when the majority of the traffic on this ferry is Pamlico County based, when gasoline prices are rising, and when so many are out of work I would think the legislators should reconsider the fees being proposed.”

Some are resigned to it happening. Others oppose it outright. There’s the observation that NC Highway 306 runs on both sides of the Neuse River, with the ferry on the river serving as the connecting piece. State roads don’t have tolls, so, the question goes, why should this one?

Some say that that no toll at all should be charged because it is a commuter ferry helping people get to their jobs — Cherry Point and PCS Phospate, to name two and not catering to tourists as the ferries to Ocracoke are. For military retirees here in Pamlico County, the ferry is their route to veterans’ services such as the VA on the other side. The ferry is a way to get to shopping as well. The Minnesott Ferry had a quarter million passengers last year — second only to Hatteras-Ocracoke — 90 percent of them with NC license tags, an indicator of local usage.

Pre-sunrise light at the Minnesott Beach ferry terminal.

Pamlico County Commission chairman Paul Delamar says he believes the commuter ferries in Eastern North Carolina shouldn’t have to charge tolls. Running the commuter ferries, he says, is something DOT should continue to absorb for this part of the state, he says, just as taxpayers here see their money going to road-widening projects in the Triangle.

“I don’t begrudge a road cut in the side of a granite mountain” in western North Carolina, Delamar says, noting that such roadbuilding “costs more than down here” in the flatlands of Pamlico County.

“It’s the same principle.”

Some accept that there will be a toll but argue that even the $4 one-way ride, the lowest suggested, could cut down on ridership as people opt to drive around, through New Bern to get to Havelock, Morehead and Beaufort. That, it is said, could work against the effort to raise money for the ferry service. There are questions as well about how much money this will actually net. It’s been reported from earlier hearings that at least 8 people would have to be hired for each route just to collect tolls.

The ferry Floyd J Lupton on a Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach run.
Why Not A Toll On All Ferries?

Another thing that’s making the toll tough to accept here is that the burden is not shared equally. While the riders on the Minnesott and Aurora commuter ferries would be hit with tolls, the two Outer Banks ferries — one serving a mainly tourist trade — would remain free rides.

If all the ferries in North Carolina — including the ones at Hatteras-Ocracoke and Knott’s Island — were collecting tolls, the price could go down systemwide. Evidence of that can be seen in the DOT presentation, (page 5) and what is called the “System Parity Model.” It raises the $5 million dollars the Legislature wanted the Ferry System to generate, but by charging on all seven ferry routes, which the Legislature forbade. Under that model, the fare for the Minnesott Ferry could be $2 and $4 at Aurora.

For many Pamlico County ferry riders, that could take a lot of the edge off.

When the possibility of a toll first came up last year, there was an outcry at Ocracoke, where the Hatteras ferry is the link to the rest of the Outer Banks. That ferry is the most heavily traveled in the state ferry system, but the majority of the cars are reportedly those of tourists, judging by DOT’s tally of out of state license plates. At the other end of the Outer Banks, meanwhile, some argued that the Knott’s Island ferry had to remain free because school children traveled on it to get to school.

Similar arguments might be made for Pamlico County and its ferries — Arapahoe Charter School for instance, has about three dozen students relying on the Minnesott Ferry. But in the end it wasn’t those appeals that kept the Outer Banks commuter ferries free. It was politics.

The Neuse River as seen in the reflection of windows on the ferry.

The News and Observer has reported that those ferries avoided the mandate to pay a toll because the votes of two Democratic representatives in those districts were needed for the Legislature’s Republican leadership to pass last year’s budget and make it veto-proof.

“It’s an awful amazing coincidence,” says Paul Delamar of the Pamlico County Commission. “How it happened, I don’t know, but the outcome stinks.”

If the state is saying it needs to raise the $5 million, Delamar says, “either everybody ought to pay or nobody should pay.”

Delamar says that the County Commission passed a resolution opposing the ferry toll last year — as did the Town of Oriental – but nothing got coordinated with the county’s State Representative Norm Sanderson nor with State Senator Jean Preston. Delamar says he would have liked to see at least an attempt at an amendment.

Sanderson, a freshman representative last year, says he first saw the ferry mandates when they were already written in to the budget. He voted with fellow Republicans for the budget.

Last month, Sanderson said he wanted to try to get the issue taken up again in this year’s short session of the legislature. For opponents of the toll, that appears to be the only hope for keeping the ferries free.

Minnesott Beach ferry terminal.
Public Hearing Wasn’t Initially Scheduled For County Most Affected

In early January, the DOT announced it would be holding 4 hearings — in Washington, Southport, Morehead City and Ocracoke. None of them was scheduled in Pamlico COunty, despite this area being the one most affected by the proposed introduction of tolls on two commuter ferries. After TownDock reported that, readers wrote and called and DOT added the February 15 hearing at PCC.

That stage has been set. How it will play out may well depend on Wednesday night’s turnout. That could determine if the area can get a reprieve and delay the introduction of the tolls so that the legislature can re-examine how it decided to impose them.

The DOT informational meeting and hearing takes place on Wednesday, February 15 at 7p at Pamlico Community College’s Ned Delamar Auditorium. The college is on Highway 306. There is seating there for 600 people.

Those who can’t attend but want to send a comment, may do so by writing to: Mr. Jamille Robbins, NCDOT-Human Environment Unit, 1598 Mail Service Center, Raleigh 27699-1598 or jarobbins@ncdot.gov or by calling 919-707-6085. The deadline is the day after the hearing, February 16.

Posted Monday February 13, 2012 by Melinda Penkava

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