Ferry-funding issues defined

Published 9:42 pm Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Staff Writer

The House and Senate versions of proposed changes to the state budget would increase funding for the N.C. Ferry Division by more than $11.3 million to “maintain the current level of service” for fiscal year 2010-2011, budget documents read.
This increase would expand the division’s operating budget from $32.2 million to $43.5 million, related Lucy Wallace, communications officer for the division.
The House and Senate spending plans each call for an identical increase for the division, and that figure is larger than the extra $4.8 million Gov. Beverly Perdue included in her proposed budget.
The funding increase is necessary to restore the division to full service following budget cuts that resulted in layoffs and reduced runs at ferry locations, Wallace said.
The division would use the money, in part, to maintain U.S. Coast Guard inspections standards for its fleet and hire about 70 workers as part of the service-restoration move, she said.
Not entirely unrelated to the funding matter is a previously reported legislative proposal put on the table late last month.
The proposal could lead to the imposition of fees on ferry routes that currently are free and the elevation of fees where they already are levied.
With an eye on making ferries self-sustaining, on May 27 a majority of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation lent its support to a measure that would task the division with developing a new fee schedule.
A subcommittee document shows the fee schedule would pertain to “all ferry routes in an amount necessary to cover the operating costs of the existing ferry routes.”
The fee schedule would provide exceptions for teachers and school children living on barrier islands and take into consideration “the needs of commuters and other frequent passengers.”
The division would have to submit its fee report by Feb. 1, 2011, which means that no fee hikes would be included in the current state budget.
State Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, serves on the House subcommittee that endorsed the plan. Williams opposes raising or broadening fees.
“It costs a lot of money and (certain committee members) were wanting to do that,” Williams said in a recent interview. “I have a little problem with that.”
Williams noted that the Aurora-Bayview ferry is a free route at present, and that many of its riders use the route to get to and from work at PotashCorp.
“I told them in my opinion, when you do that you’re starting to charge people to go to work,” Williams said of the fee-schedule recommendation.
Other observers have said the Swan Quarter-Ocracoke route also is used by commuters who would have to pay even more than they pay now if the General Assembly signs off on a new fee schedule.
The fee-schedule change has been discussed for a couple of terms and hasn’t passed, Williams pointed out.
“I think they’ve got a problem when they get over to the Senate,” he said. “I don’t think the Senate’s going to let that go.”
Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who represents eight coastal or near-coastal counties in the northeast, has consistently said that ferries “should be available, accessible and affordable for the public, and that includes residents and visitors,” said spokesman Schorr Johnson. “If the ferry system were to be completely self-supporting, it would not be affordable.”
The House discussion of fees was a nod to the fact that the state’s ferries are subsidized and not entirely dependent on revenues from riders, Johnson indicated.
In any event, discussion over the bigger budget picture is ongoing.
The Senate did not concur with the House changes in the spending plan, and conferees were to be appointed to iron out a final agreement, Johnson said Tuesday.