State regulators have resolved a long-simmering dispute about ferry costs to and from Bald Head Island, a small resort community across from Southport on the Cape Fear River and accessible only by ferry.
Though the tiny island has just 1,200 individual property owners, the move by Bald Head Island Transportation to nearly double its ferry rates resonated beyond the borders of this state.
The N.C. Utilities Commission was inundated with complaints from part-time residents, including those who live in the Triangle as well as in Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey. Retirees who live full-time on Bald Head Island feared that higher ferry rates would trap them on their island paradise, from which they have to leave occasionally for shopping and doctors appointments.
Some told the commission the ferry company, by raising rates, was preventing them from traveling to and from their homes. The company said it has been operating at a deficit for 10 years and needed to raise rates to pay for business operations.
On Friday, the utilities commission approved a rate increase that represents a compromise between the current rate and the big increases Bald Head Island Transportation had requested in May.
Under rate changes effective Jan. 1, a general pass will increase from $16 to $23. The ferry operator had requested $28.
The annual pass will go up from $1,665 to $1,850. The ferry company wanted $2,800.
A one-way pass will go from $5 to $11.50, not the $14 requested.
The utilities commission is best known for regulating the rates of utilities like Duke Energy, Progress Energy, PSNC Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas. But the agency also regulates ferry rates and mover rates.
For their expert witness, The Village of Bald Head Island, Bald Head Island Club and Bald Head Association hired consultant Julius Wright, a Ph.D. in Economics from N.C. State University who also happens to be a former state senator in the General Assembly and a former member of the N.C. Utilities Commission.
Wright argued that Bald Head Island Transportation based its rate request on flawed assumptions.