Ferry tolls decried

Published 12:16 am Saturday, January 21, 2012

At least 55 people showed up Thursday for an at-times-heated public meeting on ferry toll increases mandated by the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly.

Every person who spoke during the session voiced opposition to the increases, which, by law, must take effect by April 1.

Many spectators who didn’t speak cheered for those who did.

Tate Johnson, director of Gov. Beverly Perdue’s eastern office, read a statement from Perdue, who called the tolls a “ferry tax.”

“It is unwise and unjust to inflict this kind of tax on a region hard hit by the recession,” Perdue wrote. “This tax makes it hard for honest, hard-working folks here to make a living by adding additional costs to their transportation needs.”

The tolling measure, enshrined in the books by a majority of state lawmakers, would impose a toll on the now-free Aurora-Bayview ferry route in eastern Beaufort County.

Under pricing options on the table, vehicles of 20 feet or less in length could be charged up to $10 or $12 per trip to take this ferry across the Pamlico River.

That could cost the average daily rider $120 over a five-day period, or $480 per month.

The Aurora-Bayview route is used daily by employees of PotashCorp-Aurora and other commuters.

“This affects our work force,” said Chris Toppin, human-resources manager for PotashCorp.

With 1,100 employees, PotashCorp is Beaufort County’s largest employer.

“The timing couldn’t be worse,” Toppin said in reference to the coming toll, nodding to last year’s Hurricane Irene, which, he said, affected more than 300 PotashCorp workers.

“There is a lot of frustration” over the charges ahead, he said.

Several speakers identifying themselves as PotashCorp employees rose to oppose the imposition of a toll on the Aurora-Bayview route.

Sen. Stan White, D-Dare, is Beaufort County’s state senator.

A former member of the state Board of Transportation, White voted against the toll mandate.

“I have trouble believing that my counterparts don’t understand that the ferry system is a part of the highway system,” said White, a vocal opponent of the tolling measure.

White has pointed out motorists in Raleigh, Greensboro and other heavily populated communities don’t have to pay to take public roads to and from work, as ferry riders would no later than April 1.

“It’s just not fair, and I’ll continue to fight,” he said.

Beaufort County Commissioner Al Klemm, a Republican, pointed to Beaufort County’s high poverty and unemployment rates in explanation of his opposition to the tolls.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is nothing but another tax to send more money to Raleigh,” Klemm said.

Also in attendance were Democratic Beaufort County Commissioners Ed Booth and Jerry Langley, neither of whom spoke.

State Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, did not attend the meeting.

Paul Morris, the state’s deputy secretary for transit, advised the crowd that legislators had required the N.C. Department of Transportation to generate $5 million in revenue from ferry tolls.

“That $5 million is a fixed number,” Morris stated. “We have no ability to alter it.”

It costs the state about $38 million a year to operate its ferry system, Morris said.

Tolls on two currently free routes, and increased tolls on other routes that already carry charges, are components of the legislative mandate, he said.

DOT will hold three more public meetings on this issue — one in Morehead City, one in Southport and one in Grantsboro. For a full list of the meetings, their dates and locations, see the division’s website, www.ncdot.org/ferry/.