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Passenger-only ferry should be making trips during summer season

This summer, the North Carolina Ferry System adds direct passenger-only service from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island’s Silver Lake Harbor.

The new service allows tourists and others an opportunity to visit Ocracoke without facing parking and/or traffic problems. The 98-passenger Ocracoke Express will leave the Hatteras ferry terminal several times a day through September.

The ferry fare is $15 for a round-trip excursion, including free access to the public tram that serves Ocracoke Village and adjacent areas. Children 5 years old or younger may ride the ferry at no cost, but an adult must accompany them.

Passengers may leave their vehicles at the Hatteras ferry terminal, where 148 parking spaces will be available. Overnight parking is not allowed.

Passengers with reservations should check in at least 30 minutes before departure times. Walk-up passengers (no reservations) will be accepted up to 15 minutes before the ferry departs. The ferry accepts passengers’ bicycles.

Passengers are allowed small carry-on items such as backpacks and purses. Walkers and strollers are permitted on the ferry. Large luggage items and coolers are prohibited.

The ferry terminal at Silver Lake Harbor is within walking distance of most of the shops and restaurants on Ocracoke. Passengers my rent bicycles and golf carts to get around the island.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation awarded Armstrong Marine Inc. of Port Angeles, Washington, a $4.15 million contract to build the catamaran-style ferry, agency spokesman Tim Hass said in a news release.

Much of the funding comes from a Federal Lands Access Program grant, Hass said. The contract calls for Armstrong Marine to deliver the new ferry by April 28. The vessel will be built at the company’s shipyard in Swansboro.

Several factors influenced the decision to build and operate the new ferry. A survey showed people would pay for a quicker ride to Ocracoke Village and the ability to skip lines. A passenger ferry would reach the village in about the same time as a vehicle ferry reaches the north docks about 15 miles away. Officials hope to boost the economy of tiny Ocracoke Island, where the tourism business has fallen by an estimated 25 percent in the past three years.

Riders on the route to Ocracoke have fallen to 815,000 a year from more than 1 million since the early 2000s. Much of the decline has come in the last three years when shoaling in Hatteras Inlet forced the ferries to take a longer route — an hour instead of 40 minutes, reducing the number of daily trips.

Jed Dixon, the ferry system’s assistant director, said the ferry’s run between the two islands would take 70 minutes.

Operating on a reservation system, Dixon said, the new ferry would enable vacationers to “really control their day. … A day-tripper will be able to make a reservation for the time they want to leave and return, which is huge for someone on vacation.

Dixon explained to the Hyde County commissioners that the currently operating car ferry follows a much longer horseshoe-shaped route from Hatteras Village to the ferry terminal at the north end of Ocracoke Island than it had previously “due to an extreme amount of shoaling in the Hatteras Inlet area.” The longer route, Dixon explained, has increased operating costs by $250,000 per month, reduced daily ferry departures from each side from 52 to about 42 and doubled the travel time to about an hour while increasing the wait time at each terminal by one to two hours. Noting visitors’ primary destination is Ocracoke Village at the south end of the island, Dixon said this adds a 20- to 30-minute drive to the ferry trip.