New Bern, NC – The first thing state officials want the public to know is that a possible Hatteras-to-Ocracoke toll ferry is not a proposal at this point.
"The General Assembly is looking at all existing programs. They asked us specifically for information about the ferry system ranging from how many ferries, how many people to what how would the ferry system increase their revenues by $5 million, $10 million, $15 million and we provided answers to those questions. We have not been told to do anything differently at this point in time."
Greer Beaty is communications director for the N-C Department of Transportation. Still, with the legislature's Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation asking questions about increased revenues and something again, not a proposal or bill in print discussing tolling options, residents of Ocracoke whose only access to the mainland is by ferry are wary.
"Some people provided very specific figures. Most residents work in the service industry. A charge of $120/month could amount to as much as 8% of their yearly income."
Jamie Tunnell, a public information officer for Hyde County and an Ocracoke resident. Jamie was quoting from an e-mail she received from an island business when she inquired about the possible effects a ferry toll might have. The presentation on a possible toll included a single trip fee of either $10 or $15 or monthly pass fees ranging from $75-to-$125. That kind of fee imposed on the Hatteras/Ocracoke ferry plus three other free ferries and increases in three ferries already tolled could generate additional revenue of 8-to-13 million dollars. Robin Mann, the chair of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, is sensitive to the state's financial situation but makes no bones about what the Chamber feels about the possible toll.
"To impose a tax on a small island that that is their only avenue of travel to-and-from is unfair."
That's not quite true. There are three state-run ferries off Ocracoke, but only one that is free. Mann's contention the toll would be "unfair" is debatable, but in a letter the Outer Banks Chamber sent to state Senator Kathy Harrington, the chair of the Transportation subcommittee, the Chamber goes further by saying the Hatteras/Ocracoke toll would be illegal.
"In our letter the examples were the conversion of free highways prohibited. "The authority board is prohibited from converting any segment of a non-tolled state highway system to a tolled facility except from a segment of 540 in Wake County."
That statute also says the state should maintain a comparable non-toll route for each Turnpike project. That non-toll route is crucial to island residents whose relative isolation makes their life challenging. Jamie Tunnell.
"No one else in the state or maybe in the nation has to pay to leave their home to go to the dentist, go to a specialist, do any traveling and so I think that's the first thing everyone thinks about for those of us to have to pay to go off the island to do those everyday things that other people take for granted."
But again, the proposal, as mentioned earlier, isn't even a proposal. Right now it's part of a presentation answering questions about how the state ferry division as well as other transportation department divisions might increase revenues or decrease expenses. The DOT's Greer Beaty says if the Legislature gives the Department a target and leaves it at that, a ferry toll would be on the list of possible responses but not a sure thing. It would all depend on whether the department gets a target or a directive.
"If we're given targets that say we need to cut a certain amount of money and we're given the flexibility to meet those targets, we will look to this presentation as well as other opportunities, other suggestions that we find internally or those suggested to us externally. If a budget comes out and explicitly tells us what to do, we will do that. That's the way that works."
I'm George Olsen.