Ferry funding is sorely needed

Published 11:43 am Wednesday, March 12, 2008

By Staff
The dateline on the story was Bainbridge Island, Wash.
It could very well have read Mann’s Harbor, the home base for the North Carolina ferry system.
An Associated Press report this week on problems with the ferry system in the state of Washington reads a lot like the problems we face here in the Tarheel state. Both states are operating aging ferry systems, and travelers are paying the price. The main difference is Washington seems to be seriously trying to provide money to fix the problem.
Lawmakers there agreed to provide $350 million to build four new “superferries” that could carry 144 vehicles and 2,500 passengers each. But five years later, those vessels are still on the drawing board because of legal battles with shipbuilders and political squabbles over the size of the boats. They also approved another $100 million to replace three smaller ferries.
The Washington ferry system is much larger than North Carolina’s. It hauls 24 million passengers each year, about a quarter of all U.S. ferry passengers, using 24 vessels. They range from a tiny boat that links Tacoma to Vashon Island to a tourist-friendly international run that winds through the scenic San Juan Islands to Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The North Carolina system has two dozen boats that transport about 1.1 million vehicles and more than 2.5 million passengers a year. The largest, the sound class, can carry about 50 cars and 300 people. The local system operates over five bodies of water, including the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound.
Ferry Division Director Jack Cahoon is trying to get two of the larger sound-class ferries replaced. The price tag is estimated at $24 million. The entire budget for the N.C. ferry system is just $25 million, so that would be a hefty increase. The option of doing nothing isn’t an option. What happens when the U.S. Coast Guard rules that the Pamlico and Silver Lake ferries are no longer seaworthy? Cahoon has nothing to replace them with.
Washington is in — excuse the pun — the same boat.
In the big picture, the ferry portion of the North Carolina Department of Transportation budget is tiny. DOT’s total budget is $3.9 billion. But since the 1930s, state taxpayers have been helping pay for the ferry service.
Washington also subsidizes its system, but some say it’s still not cheap. A walk-on passenger pays $6.70 a day. Driving a car onto the ferry costs $11.55 each direction, or $460 a month for 20 workdays.
In North Carolina, taxpayers pay 91 percent of the cost of the ferry system. Fees for some of the longer rides generate the other 9 percent.
Most of North Carolina’s routes are short, like the one from Aurora, and they’re free. Some, like the popular run from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter, do carry a charge. A pedestrian pays $1 fir a one-way trip. A small car pays $10. Even if the fees were doubled, it wouldn’t put a serious dent in the DOT budget.
The ferry system will never operate as a money-maker, and it probably shouldn’t. But we wonder if ferry riders would be willing to spend a bit more if they saw that they were getting something for their money. North Carolina may not be able to afford the Cadillac of ferry systems, but those who use them deserve to at least have something reliable.