Fix the ferries — and more

Published 2:36 pm Sunday, July 22, 2007

By Staff
The summer that a beach at Ocracoke was named the best beach in the United States has turned out to be the summer that ferry service to the Outer Banks island has been disrupted, disappointing and damaging.
The ferry runs between Swan Quarter and Ocracoke and back to Swan Quarter have been greatly curtailed this summer, a time of year when extra ferry runs are the norm because people are taking summer vacations on the island. But when the beach there is named the best in the nation, it’s a good bet that many more people will want to visit Ocracoke.
The Ocracoke-Cedar Island ferry runs have been curtailed this summer, too.
One can’t drive directly to the island. There are no bridges connecting it to the mainland. Arriving by boat or by small airplane is the usual mode of transportation. Ferries, operated by the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division, transport many people to and from the island.
Having ferry service disrupted, even for a day, means disruption in the island’s economy, which relies heavily on tourist-generated revenues. When a ferry serving the island doesn’t run, it’s costing someone money.
Perhaps it’s time the state considered replacing some of the aging ferries. Ferries aren’t cheap. Losing tourists and their dollars because they can’t get to some of the nation’s best beaches isn’t a good thing, either.
The money spent on acquiring some new ferries would be an investment that would provide excellent returns on that investment. What good is it to have the best beach in the nation and not be able to help people get there?
People traveling to Ocracoke, staying at Ocracoke and traveling from Ocracoke for whatever reasons likely will spend money in the state while on their way there, while there and while on their way home or elsewhere. That revenue stream for Ocracoke, Hyde County and North Carolina must be protected.
Ferries that break down and can’t be relied on during the peak of the tourism season are more than just an annoyance. They give the state a black eye. They take money out of a shopkeeper’s cash register. An unreliable ferry service is a disservice to visitors who need it to reach their destinations and North Carolina residents who depend on that service to bring people to where they live so they can make a living.
The fault probably doesn’t lie with the people given the tasks of keeping the ferries running and repairing them when they don’t run. They probably are handcuffed, to some degree, by lack of money to do their jobs in a proper manner. The fault, more than likely, lies with DOT administrators and the N.C. General Assembly. In short, they have failed by not providing the Ferry Division with the tools it needs to do its job.
If a state-owned ferry can be used as a floating party barge to take legislators and others on a cocktail cruise, as one was used last summer near Morehead City, then those same legislators can find the money to make sure that ferries are available to take money-spending tourists where they want to go. As for the ferry used as a party barge, let’s not forget that trip was paid for by taxpayers who didn’t get an invitation to come aboard for the party.
It’s time to replace aging ferries with new ones, something that probably can be done without raising taxes. It’s time to redouble efforts to make sure the newer ferries are maintained to the point where they don’t need to be towed to a dry dock several times during the summer, leaving tourists and local folks high and dry.
It would be nice if a “ferry” godmother could wave her magic wand and solve the problem. That’s not going to happen. It’s time to look to the goose that lays the golden egg — the state government, mainly the Legislature. If it can’t find the money for new ferries, it can require those who manage the ferry service to do a better job of keeping ferries running during the prime time for tourists in North Carolina.
It’s great to have the best beach in the nation. It’s a shame getting there has been the adventure this summer, not what happens once there.