Free ferries could vanish

Published 9:02 pm Friday, June 4, 2010

Staff Writer

As the North Carolina House debated its proposed adjustments to the two-year state budget Thursday, some Beaufort County residents took a few moments to analyze the potential local effects of the spending plan.
One of the local effects not addressed in the spending plan could come in the form of new or increased fees imposed on riders who use North Carolina ferries to traverse area waterways.
This week, the Raleigh News &Observer reported that the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation gave a nod to a measure that would impose a fee schedule for all ferry routes in the state.
A separate but not unrelated legislative concept that was on the table would increase the Ferry Division’s budget from more than $11.3 million to $43.5 million, according to the N&O.
It appears some lawmakers favor elevating fees as a path to covering the costs of the ferry system as the Legislature seeks ways to cover the rising costs of state government through the next fiscal year and beyond.
The fee matter, considered by the subcommittee May 27, tasks the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Ferry Division with developing a fee schedule “for all ferry routes in an amount necessary to cover the operating costs of the existing ferry routes.”
The proposal reads, “As part of developing a fee schedule, the Department of Transportation, Ferry Division, shall provide a fee exception for schoolchildren and teachers who reside on a barrier island and travel on a ferry to attend or teach at a primary or secondary school.”
The document also demands that the division “consider the needs of commuters and other frequent passengers in developing the fee schedule.”
The division would be required to deliver to the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees on transportation a report on a planned fee schedule and a time line for implementing that schedule.
The report would have to be submitted “no later than” Feb. 1, 2011, which means that no fee hikes would take place this year.
A request for comment from Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, president pro tempore of the Senate, brought the following e-mailed response from spokesman Schorr Johnson: “It was not in the Senate budget and Senator Basnight has always felt that ferries should be affordable and accessible to the residents who depend on them.”
Basnight represents eight northeastern counties, including Hyde and Beaufort, which benefit directly from the ferry system.
The House was in session Thursday, and attempts to obtain comment from the transportation subcommittee’s co-chairmen — Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, and Rep. Nelson Cole, D-Rockingham — were not successful.
Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, who serves on the committee, was in session and also unavailable for comment.
Two Beaufort County commissioners, one a Democrat and one a Republican, objected to any plan that would impose or increase fees to ride state-run ferries.
Commissioner Robert Cayton, a Democrat, lives in Aurora, on the south side of the Pamlico River. Many of Cayton’s constituents use the Aurora-Bayview ferry route to get to and from work.
At present, there is no charge to ride the Aurora-Bayview ferry. It was unclear whether the fee schedule would result in charges for this route.
“I oppose fees to ride the ferry,” Cayton said. “It’s double taxation. It’s penalizing men and women for going to work, and it’s adding cost at a time when we’re in a recession.”
Residents already are taxed on the gas they buy, and any fee to ride the ferry that crosses the Pamlico would be “unjust taxation,” according to Cayton.
Commissioner Al Klemm, a Republican from Washington, said, “In relation to the ferries around here, I’d be against (raising or imposing fees). One, we’re trying to develop tourism around here, and two we’re a county split by the Pamlico.”
Citing a report from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, a lobbying and support entity for all 100 of the state’s counties, Klemm said counties can find millions in added costs to local governments in the spending plans yet to be reconciled by the House and Senate.
“They’re going to be looking for every cent they can find, in my opinion, because times are tough,” he said.