New Bern, NC – The debate over a proposed ferry toll for some ferry routes, and increases to routes that are currently tolled has outraged residents since the issue was released to the public early this year. And, it will likely continue to cause a stir for at least another year. Last week, during the 2012 legislative short session, the General Assembly implemented a one year moratorium on toll increases for all of the coastal North Carolina ferries. Local government officials and non-profit agencies who strongly disapprove of the ferry tax see the moratorium as a win. Paul Delamar is the Chairman of the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners.
"If those individuals in Pamlico County and Beaufort County and Hyde County hadn't got agitated and had not expressed themselves the way they did and the way they are continuing to do, those ferries would be tolled right now."
Two ferry routes in Pamlico County serve as important connectors for residents and travelers on Highway 306. The Bayview-Aurora route spans the Pamlico River--- and the Cherry Branch-Minnesott ferry crosses a 3 mile section of the Neuse River. Both of these routes are currently free. However, when tolls go into effect, Delamar says thousands of Pamlico County residents that commute to Cherry Point will be affected.
"Both of those ferries are working people ferries they're not necessarily what most people think of as tourist ferries. They carry people back and forth to work."
In the 2011 Legislative session, the North Carolina Department of Transportation was told to increase rates on existing tolled routes, and implement new ferry tolls for routes in eastern North Carolina that are currently free by April 1st 2012. To inform the public of the increased tolling rates, the DOT hosted a series of public meetings where residents voiced their strong opposition.
During two public hearings in Pamlico County, Delamar says well over a thousand people turned out. He believes the public's concern prompted the General Assembly to set the moratorium in place blocking ferry tolls for a year.
Most of the citizens who are upset with the ferry tax are people who use the service every day. Now retired, Pamlico County resident Greg Piner estimates he rode the ferry 17-thousand times commuting to Cherry Point for 32 years.
"one of the really rewarding parts of the last year has been how many local people really got together and embraced the idea of trying to inform our legislators that this is really a bad idea."
Piner started a grassroots organization "Don't Tax Our Highways" in the spring in response to the proposed tolling increases. In addition to response from residents and grassroots efforts, the Pamlico County Commissioners hired a lobbyist in Raleigh to fight for the imposition of any tolls on the ferries.
The recent moratorium prevents the implementation of ferry tolls for 12 months. During this time, Communications Director for the North Carolina Department of Transportation Greer Beatty says the DOT will look at cost effective ways of operating coastal ferries.
"We will be prepared to work with the new governor and the new General Assembly early next year to look at what we need to do to keep the ferries operating safely and efficiently."
While the moratorium is in place, Chairman of the Pamlico County Commissioners Paul Delamar says they will be busy making sure that tolls are not implemented in the County. He hopes they will continue to fund a lobbyist in Raleigh but they are also asking residents to express their opinions on ferry tolls by writing and calling their legislators.
"I think everybody needs to be clear about who supports the public's right to ride the ferry that is essentially is the only highway for some people without charging for it. If the public does that in an election year, the public will respond."
Grassroots organizer of "Don't Tax Our Highways" Greg Piner agrees, saying residents need to be aware of where candidates stand on this issue.
"One of the really positive things about our efforts to this point has been is that this has been an effort about people and policy, and not politics. It should not be a republican democrat issue, it should be what's right for the citizens of eastern North Carolina."