Bill would delay changes

Published 7:19 pm Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The approval of a bill in a state House committee will — once again — delay implementation of new ferry tolls and the increase of existing ferry tolls.

On Tuesday, House Bill 475 was approved by the House Transportation Committee and moved to the House Finance Committee.

The bill would delay the toll changes for another year until the N.C. Department of Transportation evaluates ways to generate more revenue for the ferry system to ease the need for higher and new tolls. Unless a change is made, the changes to the toll system could not take place until mid-2014.

The two houses in the N.C. General Assembly are not on the same page when it comes to ferry tolls. Last week, the Senate directed DOT to expand the toll system in November.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Paul Tine, D-Dare County, stood before the Transportation Committee to answer questions related to the bill. Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven County, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I am pleased with the progress HB 475 made yesterday (Tuesday) in committee. The current version would undo the toll increases and new tolls set to go in place on July 1,” Tine wrote in an email Wednesday. “Our ferries are part of our highway system and are the most cost effective means of travel along these routes. According to the Department of Transportation, to bridge the 5 reasonable routes would cost $1 billion.  It costs $36 Million to $38 Million, depending on fuel costs, to run all 7 routes.  It would take 28 years to recoup these costs without consideration of cost of money, maintenance costs, etc.

“The bill was also rolled into the House budget in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. We hope to continue to hear the bill in Finance so that we can make the proposal and our position as strong as possible.”

The Transportation Committee’s approval came about two years after the N.C. General Assembly mandated new and higher tolls for ferry routes along the state’s coast, but a series of events kept those changes from taking place. Locally, those proposed changes would affect the Bayview-Aurora ferry and the Swan Quarter-Ocracoke ferry. Currently the Bayview-Aurora ferry is a free ferry.

Opponents of the proposed toll changes contend coastal residents should not be punished to use the ferries, which are the only means of transportation between some islands and the mainland. They also contend the ferries are an extension of the state’s highway system, which coastal residents help fund by paying a fuels tax.

Supporters of the toll changes say all users of the seven ferry routes should pay something, like drivers paying that fuels tax to help pay for road maintenance.

According to the proposed fee schedule, one-way tolls for routes to and from Swan Quarter would have increased from $15 to $27 per passenger vehicle. Motorists would have to pay new tolls of $10 per car between Bayview and Aurora and $4 per car between Cherry Branch and Minnesott Beach, according to The Associated Press. Yearly discounted commuter passes would have remained available.

The bill still has a journey before it can become law; so coastal counties are increasing their lobbying effort to get the bill passed by both houses of the General Assembly.

“Representatives who work on transportation issues are aware of the many problems associated with imposing a new ferry tax on commuters and islanders. Most have voted with us as we look for alternatives to taxing ferry passengers.  Now, it is time to communicate with a larger group of Representatives, many of whom are not familiar with the ferry tax issue,” reads an email from Henri McLees, a lobbyist who works for Beaufort County at the General Assembly, to Beaufort County Manager Randell Woodruff.

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners opposes new tolls on ferry routes that currently are free.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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