Ferry tolls could come to Beaufort County under budget proposal

Published 2:28 pm Monday, July 24, 2023

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A budget change under consideration by the North Carolina General Assembly could establish tolls for ferries that were previously exempt from the practice, including the Aurora-Bayview ferry spanning the Pamlico River in Beaufort County.

The proposed revision to House Bill 259 would authorize tolling on all ferry routes. Service for most of the state’s seven ferry routes is free, but fares are charged for service on the Ocracoke Express, a passenger ferry route between Hatteras and Ocracoke, as well as the Cedar Island-Ocracoke, Swan Quarter-Ocracoke and Southport-Fort Fisher routes.

State legislators are closing in on a budget deal already weeks past due as they work to wrap up this legislative session.

State Sen. Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell) told WBTV in Charlotte she wanted to see changes to how the state’s ferry system was funded.

“It is absolutely not a good use of DOT dollars,” Sawyer told the CBS affiliate. “When I’m paying $25 for my family to be able to access the city of Charlotte, then these people who are going across the beautiful Pamlico River should be able to pay a toll as well.”

Rep. Keith Kidwell, whose 79th district includes five of the state’s seven ferry routes, said the proposal to expand ferry tolls “just doesn’t make sense.”

“When I look at the ones here, more or less on the mainland, these are working people’s ferries,” Kidwell said. “Take Nutrien for example, from Bayview to Aurora, I assure you the best part of everybody that gets on those ferries is going to be people working. In doing my research, I found when they tried to do this previously the proposal was going to equate to a 50-cents-per-hour pay cut for the employees that would take this across from Bath to Nutrien.”

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Kidwell said he’s also concerned about a slippery slope of additional fees and taxes and doesn’t want to see North Carolina become a “toll state.”

Residents already fund the ferries, he said, through existing taxes. He said most ferry routes should be viewed as an extension of the state’s highway system.

“When you look at a roadmap you’re going to see Highway 306 or Highway 12, they just go right across the water like there was an actual road there,” Kidwell said. “There is. It’s called a ferry.”

Created in 1966, The Aurora-Bayview ferry route spans a distance of 3.5 miles and takes around 30 minutes to cross. It helps facilitate 120 jobs, an economic output of $17.9 million and $400,000 in state and local tax revenue, according to a 2020 NCDOT study on the economic contribution of North Carolina’s ferry system.

The Aurora-Bayview ferry is used primarily by locals, with residents making up 92 percent of its passengers, according to the report. Visitors account for 7 percent of the ferry’s passengers with one percent coming from seasonal residents. More than 40 percent use the ferry to travel to work.

“About 800,000 vehicles and 1.8 million passengers, each year, cross the rivers and sounds of Eastern North Carolina, making the ferry system a vital lifeline for those who live and work in the region and an economic necessity for businesses,” according to the NCDOT. “The ferry system also plays a crucial role during coastal emergencies, moving thousands of people out of harm’s way in advance of hurricanes. An emergency route also runs between Stumpy Point and Rodanthe, when N.C. 12 is damaged due to storms and other issues.”