Tolling issue revisited

Published 1:04 am Sunday, January 29, 2012

There may be some flexibility on a ferry-tolling mandate approved last year by the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly — and Hurricane Irene could be one of the culprits.
In interviews last week, both members of Beaufort County’s legislative delegation — Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort and Sen. Stan White, D-Dare — said they had approached fellow lawmakers about taking a second look at the mandate this year.
White has argued the hurricane adversely affected the area economy, which is still recovering from the Great Recession.
In other words, this isn’t the time to raise ferry tolls on some routes and begin charging on others, White has said.
Cook agrees.
The Beaufort County lawmaker said he’s interested in modifying the measure that imposed tolls on now-free ferry routes, among them the Aurora-Bayview route over the Pamlico River.
Cook’s comments come on the heels of public outcry over the new and increased tolls — an outcry that was in evidence this month during a public meeting at Beaufort County Community College.
Every speaker who took the floor during that session opposed the toll package in some form, and the opposition drew applause from pretty much all of the approximately 55 people in attendance.
Cook’s modifications could result in a delay of the tolling initiative, or in lower tolls than have been projected by the N.C. Department of Transportation, he suggested.
An exact plan for tweaking the mandate has yet to be drafted, he cautioned.
In any event, it’s unlikely the General Assembly will act on this issue before it reconvenes for its “short session” in May.
The new tolls are scheduled to take effect on or before April 1.
Cook, a member of the House appropriations committee, said he had discussed changing the bill with House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, in Raleigh this week.
“His response was, ‘Right on,’” Cook said. “He certainly agreed. In fact, we’ll do something to that end come the May short session.”
While Cook called the tolling legislation “unfortunate,” he added the original bill came to light as the Legislature was grappling with a projected $2 billion budget deficit.
“I think ferry tolling is the result of having to make very hard choices in a budget,” he said.
In May 2011, Cook told the Daily News that North Carolina’s ferries “should not be free” because there may be opportunities to offset the costs of operating the fleet.
But he also came out against making the tolls a hardship for people who ride the ferries every day.
“And I think those folks who have to use the ferry in their daily lives should get a very large break and not pay,” he said at the time.
Cook isn’t running for re-election this year, but is pursuing the 1st Senate District seat held by White.
White is seeking re-election, and the tolling issue has already become a point of debate between the two candidates.
“I’m surprised at Cook’s about-face,” White said. “He’s been so strongly for tolls.”
White, a former member of the State Board of Transportation, said he’d spoken with DOT officials who’d assured him the department could absorb ferry costs if the tolls were postponed.
“Their position is that they’ve been mandated to do this and, therefore, they’ve got to do it, but I don’t see any enthusiasm in DOT to implement these tolls,” he said.
White revealed he’d approached Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, president pro tempore of the Senate, and other leaders about re-examining the legislation.
“I don’t think with the response that they’ve had from working folks that they wouldn’t consider doing something,” he said.
The legislation in question was approved last year during the Legislature’s budget process.
Cook voted for the biennial spending plan, which included the tolling mandate. That budget was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, but Republicans overrode her veto with help from a handful of House Democrats.
The newly enacted law requires the Department of Transportation to toll all of the state’s ferries — including the currently free Aurora-Bayview trip — no later than April 1.
DOT has considered a range of pricing options in response to lawmakers’ call for the department to generate $5 million in annual revenue from ferry tolls.
Within that range is the possibility that average riders on the Aurora-Bayview ferry could see charges of $10 to $12 per trip — or up to $480 per month for people who ride the local ferry every day, as some do.
These riders could save money by purchasing commuter passes, but speakers at the public meeting also saw that choice as cost-prohibitive.