Gov. Perdue: Keep existing free ferries free?

Published 4:37 am Thursday, July 15, 2010

Staff Writers

A spokeswoman for Gov. Beverly Perdue clarified the governor didn’t intend to suggest the state slap charges on those ferry routes that are currently free.
In an apparently impromptu stop at the Bayview ferry landing this week, Perdue, who took a ferry across the Pamlico River to its south shore, seemed to come out in favor of a legislative proposal that could lead to tolls on presently free ferry routes.
“It’s a business just like any other business, and people should have to pay to use it,” Perdue said of the ferry system. “It may upset some people, but in this economy we can’t take anything for granted.”
Asked for clarification, Chrissy Pearson, Perdue’s spokeswoman, said the governor wasn’t suggesting the state should begin charging for ferry rides on now-free routes.
Speaking of the Aurora-Bayview route, Pearson said, “She understands the importance that that route has for business people going back and forth to work.”
That was an evident reference to PotashCorp employees and others who use the Aurora-Bayview ferry to get to and from work, avoiding a long drive to Washington to cross the Pamlico River on the U.S. Highway 17 Business bridge or U.S. 17 bypass.
It is reasonable to expect that charges would be levied for some routes — and they are — but Perdue “was not suggesting a change in certain routes whatsoever,” Pearson stated.
In May, a majority of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation endorsed a measure that would task the state’s Ferry Division with developing a new fee schedule.
The proposal on hand would pertain to “all ferry routes in an amount necessary to cover the operating costs of the existing ferry routes,” a provision which has been widely interpreted as a shift toward increased charges where tolls are levied, and the elimination of free ferries in the state.
At last report, the legislation didn’t make it to the floor of the House before the General Assembly adjourned its “short” session.
Some proponents of the measure say fee adjustments are necessary to move the ferry system toward self-sufficiency.
The measure didn’t win the support of state Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, who serves on the transportation subcommittee.
“I think they’ve got a problem when they get over to the Senate,” Williams told the Daily News in June. “I don’t think the Senate’s going to let that go.”
A spokesman for state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, has said the senator contends ferries “should be available, accessible and affordable for the public, and that includes residents and visitors.”
“If the ferry system were to be completely self-supporting, it would not be affordable,” spokesman Schorr Johnson said in June.
On Wednesday, Lucy Wallace, spokeswoman for the Ferry Division, noted the recently approved adjustments to the two-year state budget did not contain fee increases for ferries.
Separately, the division is examining the possibilities of adding ferry tolls as part of an ongoing optimization study, Wallace said.
This study has no connection to the legislative measure, she pointed out.
“We will continue to assess that possibility of going to tolls,” she commented.
That doesn’t mean rate changes are imminent, she acknowledged, adding it would be up to the N.C. Board of Transportation to make a final decision on the study once it’s complete.
Echoing Perdue, Pearson also responded to questions about alleged corruption within the Ferry Division.
In an editorial published last week, the Winston-Salem Journal said Perdue had “some serious explaining to do” in the wake of the firing of Harold “Buddy” Finch, who was hired to fix problems within the division.
Reflecting news reports, the editorial referenced charges of nepotism and favoritism in the ferry service.
The N.C. Department of Transportation oversees the division, and, in response to Perdue’s wishes, DOT is working to investigate some of the allegations made against the ferry system, Pearson related.
The state is looking for the right leader for the ferry system to make sure it works under a management style that can bring together diverse groups, she added.
“The governor has made setting government straight a priority and has made that clear as well with DOT,” Pearson said.