New Bern, NC – Beginning April 1st, the State will implement big changes in its tolling practices concerning river and sound class ferries. These mandated changes have some local commuters worried about paying for crossing local waterways. During the month of January, the Department of Transportation held a series of public meetings in eastern North Carolina to hear concerns and comments from the public about proposed tolls on five of the seven ferries in the system. The next chance to comment on the proposed changes . . .will take place in a couple of weeks. I decided to do a real time test to gauge the impact on people who use the ferry service every day.
I left the Public Radio East studios in New Bern studios at 4 o clock Wednesday afternoon to catch the 4:45 Cherry branch Minnesott ferry. As I pulled up to the ferry terminal, 2 workers were directing cars onto the vessel. Once everyone was on, we began the three-mile - 15 minute journey across the Neuse River.
Since it's a short ride, most people don't get out of their r cars. But I was able to talk to a few people who rolled down their windows to talk to me.
"I've been riding the ferry for 27 years. They put the ferry in in the 60's. Hadn't charged at all since the 60s until now. Why? Is the state that broke?
Ferry tolls are being added or increased on most ferries because the state is trying to make up for the budget shortfall. Dawson Creek resident, Keith Bratcher's question is a valid one. Keith is retired, but when we worked aboard Cherry Point he used THIS ferry to commute, everyday. While he doesn't use the ferry as often now, he is upset that the state plans to charge 4 to 7 dollars each way, for the ferry service he did use for many years - for free.
"So these people that drive the vans that people drive back and forth to work with that has eight or nine people riding in the van, its going to cost you four to five dollars for the van plus one dollar for each person? That's not worth it.
The DOT is proposing four options for ferry tolls. Option ONE includes a new INCREASED pricing structure for the Southport and Sound routes, which include Swanquarter and Cedar Island. It will also place tolls on the currently-free Cherry Branch and Bayview runs. In addition, option one - also places a separate charge for each passenger. Option Two is simpler - it does away with passenger charges, but the price per vehicle would increase above the option 1 fee. The 3rd option, which seems to be preferred by most residents, would charge for individual passengers and offer a lower fee for those holding annual commuter passes. But, option three would increase fees for use of the Cedar Island and Swanquarter routes. The final option, Option 4 is very similar to option 3, but it doesn't include a charge for passengers. Option 4 will make up for that by increasing other fares. Greer Beatty, the Communications Director for the state DOT says the goal is to implement systems with the least amount of impact on daily commuters as possible.
"these are the options that we've looked at that appear to be able to meet the targets defined in the law, and at the same time keeping the ferries operating safely and efficiently. "
Beatty says last year, the Board of Transportation instructed the NCDOT to increase its annual revenue from 2.1 million dollars to 5 million dollars. In order to meet that mandate, rates will increase on routes that are tolled already, and two routes that are currently free will begin charging a toll on April 1st.
"Its only affecting the people, the local residents that need it. That's the only people getting hurt."
Rich Russo lives in Oriental and commutes to his job in Havelock every day on FERRY.
Russo-Cut2 "People don't make a lot of money and then they start paying eight dollars a day, that's $40 a week and that adds up."
I spoke with a few more people on the Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach route who declined to be interviewed but told me the tolls would place the heaviest burden on daily commuters rather than tourist and people who ride the ferry for entertainment.
"I don't understand if they need the money that bad, why don't they just put up tolls on I-95? They'd make millions there. I mean it's people going back and forth going to Florida. Right? When I go to New York, I pay the Jersey Turnpike, I pay Maryland, I pay to go over every single bridge, You know what? That's what you have to do. Why isn't the people in North Carolina paying for the people in New York to drive to Florida?"
Early in the week, we attended the 3rd in a series of 5 public meeting on the new Ferry pricing proposals. At that Morehead City gathering about 50 residents and local elected officials turned out to weigh in - with their thoughts. The meeting started with a power point presentation explaining in detail the four tolling options being proposed. After the presentation, the microphone was passed around as individuals voiced their concerns before a panel of DOT officials.
When the meeting adjourned, I caught up with John Mariner from Straits, He says he doesn't use the ferries often, but thinks people who do - will take a hit to the pocketbook .
"commercial fisherman, trucking fish back and forth from locations business man going back and forth in their pickup trucks and residents going back and forth so these ferry fees would be devastating to those just trying to make it and right now on the edge, basically."
Mariner stood during the comment portion to share his thoughts about the General Assembly's decision to establish tolls at all routes except for the Ocracoke/Hatteras and Knott's Island ferries.
"the issue that was passed by the legislature excluded a large ridership part of the ferry system that would had gone a long way had it been included toward meeting the goals as far as the earnings, revenues to be produced. And that would be the Hatteras to Ocracoke ferry."
Even though its not an option, Down East resident Karen Willis Amspacker agrees that tolling all 7 routes would lessen the financial burden on commuters - but maintains that Ocracoke residents should be able to use the ferry for free.
"That's their road. I think they deserve their own road and I don't think they should have to pay. But all the rest of us coming and going, we should have to pay our fair share."
Back to the ferry As we unloaded, I made my way towards Oriental. If you want the inside scoop on anything going on in the community, stop by a local diner or eatery. Sure enough as I entered Brantley's Village Restaurant on Broad Street, locals were talking about the ferry tolls. While they declined to be interviewed, my waitress agreed to speak with me as long as I didn't use her name.
"its going to affect everybody. you know, financially especially your small commercial fishermen and then the people who work at Cherry Point who have ridden it back and forth for a long time. When you figure that they're having to pay now....even though some may drive around, that's a large expense every day."
To get an idea of the impact on Marines and workers who use the ferry as part of their daily commute, I contacted Lt. Megen Greathouse, a media officer for the Marine Corp Air Station Cherry Point. But she told me:
"We don't actually track that sort of data."
Residents in Pamlico and surrounding counties will have a chance to weigh in at the next ferry tolling public meeting planned for Wednesday, February 15th at Pamlico Community College in Grantsboro. Once again, Greer Beatty, the Communications Director for the NCDOT.
"It is not an option for us to not toll or not increase tolls. We have to follow the law. But what is an option is how we do it and that's where we really need the public to join with us and give us feedback, and help us do the best job we can do as we follow the law."
As I left the restaurant in Oriental, full of fried chicken and hushpuppies, I decided to take Highway 55 back to New Bern. I found that bypassing the Cherry Branch ferry, or "going around" as locals call it, took 42 minutes and was about 32 miles conversely. My trip TO Oriental by way of the Cherry Branch Minnesott ferry took about 30 minutes longer and was 10 extra miles. The final verdict- for me anyway- while the savings in gas may offset the price of a ferry toll, you can't beat the scenery you get with the ferry. Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.