New Bern, NC – When legislators set down to work out a new two-year budget for the fiscal year that began July 1st they were looking to fill a projected $2.4 billion gap between expenditures and revenue. The focus was on potential education cuts and the elimination of a temporary one-cent sales tax, with Republicans in charge of the budgeting process insisting no new taxes would be used to fill the shortfall. A budget was passed, then vetoed, and that veto overridden with the 1 penny sales tax eliminated and no hike in taxes but a hike in fees that some people pay.
"When they passed the budget it was included in there the ferry division needed to become more self-sufficient and increase its revenue and the figure we need to come up with is $4.5 million for fiscal year 12/13, and because of that we are, they mandated we toll at some of the routes that are currently free and increase tolls at those that are already being tolled."
Lucy Wallace is a communications officer for the state Department of Transportation's Ferry Division. That budget o-k'd continuing free ferries between Hatteras and Ocracoke as it's the only free access to the island as well as the Currituck to Knotts Island ferry as it's used in part to transport school children to mainland schools. But ferries that cross the Pamlico River from Bay View to Aurora and one crossing the Neuse River from Cherry Branch to Minnesott weren't as lucky and that has some local officials concerned.
"The first is the amount that has been initially proposed I think thrown around for lack of a better term is $10 and so that's a one-way trip, so if someone goes across the ferry from Minnesott to Cherry Branch for a day-trip to the beach or to Havelock to conduct business then that's $20 $10 to there and $10 back. So just economically it's an impact on our citizens."
Pamlico County Manager Tim Buck. There is a land route people can take to get from Pamlico County into Craven but Buck estimates it takes in the 50 minute range to drive what the ferry covers in around 20 minutes
"Second thing we have quite a large portion of our population that works at MCAS Cherry Point, so we're concerned about that as well. They commute on a daily basis to Havelock. We also have people who commute the other way. The travel between those two counties, if you were to have to drive around, we're a very rural county, and the amount of travel time is increased and also the dollar amount in fuel is just an additional burden in a tight economy."
Those concerns prompted the Pamlico County and Craven County Board of Commissioners to pass resolutions opposing tolls on the Cherry Branch-Minnesott ferry. Getting the toll eliminated will be an uphill battle as just the Hatteras/Ocracoke and Currituck/Knots Island ferries were exempted from new or increased tolls under the budget and getting the mandated extra $4.5 million in ferry operations won't likely come from cuts. Lucy Wallace with the Ferry Division.
"We've cut back, we didn't hire in positions that were open, and we have to have a certain number of crew members for each run as mandated by the Coast Guard, so our hands are a little tied as far as eliminating positions. We have to have the crew we have to have as required by the Coast Guard so its gonna probably be tolls that increase this revenue to the goal they've told us to reach."
Despite that mandate, Pamlico County Manager Tim Buck hasn't given up on getting the ferry toll waived, saying the county needs "to make as strong a case as we can" against the toll. But with the real possibility of a toll, Buck is at least anxious to pursue an option that has minimal impact on business commuters and that could actually generate real revenue for the ferry division.
"We also said if it can't be stayed its important to have an economical solution. It has to be an affordable rate. The $10 rate for a lot of reasons is not a good idea. One, I think you'll see the usage of the ferry drop off dramatically and it won't result in the amount of revenue they think it is."
Tim Buck and the Pamlico County Board of Commissioners still have some time to make their case. Lucy Wallace with the state Ferry Division says she believes they are still 6-to-8 weeks away from making a decision on the price of proposed tolls for state ferries. I'm George Olsen.