Cooper backs tolls law

Published 7:38 pm Friday, April 13, 2012

Staff, wire reports

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is siding with the N.C. General Assembly on new tolls for some ferry routes that are now free and increased tolls for ferry routes with existing tolls, according to several sources.

McClees Consulting, a Pamlico County-based company representing several local governments in eastern North Carolina in their fight against the tolls, reported Friday that Cooper’s office sided with the Legislature on the ferry-toll issue during its report to the N.C. Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Grayson Kelley, in a letter to a state House transportation leader, wrote the following: “It is, therefore, our opinion that a direct conflict between a law enacted by the General Assembly and an Executive Order issued by the Governor must be resolved through implementation of the law.”

Kelley also wrote that it is the opinion of the attorney general’s office “that a direct conflict between a law and an executive order must be resolved through implementing the law,” according to a report by The Associated Press.

“It is our opinion that the state law as passed by the Legislature must be followed,” Cooper said Friday in a prepared statement. “It was the Legislature’s decision to collect tolls and the Legislature has the authority to remove them.”

Chris Mackey, Gov. Beverly Perdue’s press secretary, said later Friday “the governor believes her executive order is both legal and right,” AP reported.

“On Feb. 28, Perdue invoked executive powers in announcing a yearlong moratorium upon new or increased tolls. She said the higher tolls, which had been set to take effect April 1, would have excessively burdened coastal residents still recovering from Hurricane Irene and the tepid economy,” AP reported.

Friday, the transportation oversight committee debated a draft bill promoted by two House Democrats from the coast to eliminate the new and higher fares and find cost savings elsewhere to make up the difference, AP reported. Any such law also would have to be approved by the full General Assembly when it reconvenes in May.

Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson weighed in on the issue Friday afternoon.

“I’m disappointed they (the Legislature) were unfair in apportioning tolls where some people had to people a toll and other people did not have to pay a toll,” Richardson said. “The unfairness is one big issue in this. Of course, the county is against ferry tolls altogether. The governor certainly has to follow the legislative law. She can’t make up her on law and do whatever she wants to with it.”

Richardson said Beaufort County could have avoided the ferry-toll issue.

“We would never have had this problem in Beaufort County if the commissioners had done the right thing to begin with and built the U.S. 17 Bypass on the east side of Washington as far east as they could, knowing that Beaufort County would be paying a ferry toll. So, the whole situation is a disaster.”

As for a planned rally in Raleigh on May 16 to voice opposition to the tolls, Richardson said, “I think the people who are adamantly opposed to the tolls should participate in it. Definitely, they should go up and do whatever they can do by force of numbers to give the message to the Legislature.”

“It isn’t good,” Hyde County Manager Mazie Smith said in an email Friday afternoon.

In that email distributed by Hyde County government, Smith said she worries the new tolls and increased tolls could soon be imposed, so she told Hyde County department heads to adjust their budgets accordingly.

Smith estimated the tolls, which she refers to as a “ferry tax,” will cost Hyde County an extra $60,000 in travel costs for government business. These extra costs will have a direct threat on county jobs, programs and services, she noted in the email.

The Hyde County email said ferry riders must prepare to pay the increased tolls, which will cost a family $104 for a round-trip ticket on the Swan Quarter-Ocracoke ferry. In Pamlico and Beaufort counties, commuters are facing a tax of $100 per week just to get to work.

Smith said that residents on the Hyde County mainland who don’t even ride the ferry would still have to pay the price for the “ferry tax.”

The Hyde County email indicates some local governments and residents in eastern North Carolina are going to protest the tolls.

“Get ready to march in Raleigh! We invite you to stand with us in Raleigh on the opening day of the Legislature on Wednesday, May 16, 2012,” reads the email. Anyone interested in participating in the event should contact Megan Shaw, transportation coordinator in Hyde County for the rally, at 252-926-4373 or 252