N.C. ferry system an economic must

Published 8:23 pm Friday, December 28, 2007

By Staff
A ride on a ferry may be a once in a lifetime thrill for some visitors to North Carolina, but for many people who live in the eastern part of the state, the state’s ferry service is an economic lifeline.
In Beaufort County, 115,706 passengers have taken ferry trips between Aurora and Bayview so far this year. According to the latest DOT figures, that’s up 4,300 from the same period the year before. The number of people going to or from Swan Quarter topped 55,000.
The state recently reported that the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division has carried more than two million passengers and one million vehicles. That’s nearly 170,000 more passengers than in the same period last year.
The Ferry Division has 21 vessels that operate 365 days a year on seven routes along the coast. They cross five bodies of water including the Currituck and Pamlico sounds. They also carry people and goods across the Cape Fear, Neuse and Pamlico rivers.
Traffic numbers are up along each of the seven ferry routes, with the most significant increase seen at the Hatteras-Ocracoke operation. Crews on the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries have carried 106,000 more passengers than transported last year. As of Dec. 1, overall ridership was 982,885 passengers. The operation also set a one-day record on July 5, carrying 10,231 passengers. The previous record of 9,001 was set on July 7, 1999, during the move of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse.
Sadly, the ferry system doesn’t garner the attention of lawmakers when it comes to funding. The annual budget, on average, is about $25 million. DOT as a whole has a budget of $3.9 billion. The ferry fleet includes two ships that are more than 40 years old and badly in need of replacement.
Ferry Division Director Jack Cahoon has had to scratch and claw to get funding for his agency, and he is trying to get two of the larger sound-class ferries replaced. The price tag is estimated to be $24 million, or nearly the entire ferry budget for a given year.
The option of doing nothing isn’t available. The Coast Guard could force the state to dock the Pamlico and Silver Lake ferries for good, and that would cause big economic problems for the communities that rely on them.
This year’s budget included a one-time allocation of $6 million for things like rescue boats that would meet Coast Guard standards. However, fuel, payroll and repairs take up about 90 percent of the budget. The Pamlico is in the process of getting $450,000 worth of repairs. The Silver Lake was also recently repaired.
Taxpayers pay 91 percent of the cost of the ferry system. Fees for some of the longer rides generate the other 9 percent. The subsidy isn’t anything new.
The North Carolina system traces its roots back to the 1920s when Capt. J.B. “Toby” Tillett established a tug and barge system across Oregon Inlet along the Outer Banks. The state started to subsidize the service in 1934, and it hasn’t stopped since.
In the midst of World War II, the state eliminated tolls. In the 1950s, the state bought Tillett’s business. State leaders saw then, and they should see now, that a ferry system is an economic requirement in the eastern part of the state.