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House-Senate budget cuts toll road money, raises ferry tolls, kills rail transit fund

Included in the budget agreement rolled out today are provisions that:

* Direct the Department of Transportation to start collecting new and increased ferry tolls that had been ordered in the budget a year ago, but with some changes:

 - The busy Hatteras – Ocracoke ferry across Hatteras Inlet and the Knotts Island ferry across Currituck Sound will remain toll-free, as legislators had agreed in 2011.  Senate leaders previously favored tolls on these routes, too. 

 - The House and Gov. Bev Perdue had proposed to delay the new tolls for a year, citing economic hardship in ferry-dependent coastal communities. The leaders of both chambers agreed in the new budget to give a one-year reprieve only for riders on one route: the Cherry Branch – Minnesott Beach ferry across the Neuse River, which serves Cherry Point commuters.

- Riders on the Pamlico River ferry in Beaufort County, which also serves commuters, will have to start paying tolls for the first time.

* Cut $63 million in funding for the planned Garden Parkway near Charlotte and Mid-Currituck Bridge toll projects on the northern Outer Banks, because DOT officials have said they will not be ready to spend the money in the coming year. 

* Drop a Senate proposal to charge a statewide fee of $45 for teens under age 18 who take driver education class.  Local school systems are still authorized to collect a fee of up to $45, to make up for a cut in state funding last year.

* Eliminate the state’s New Starts program that supplements federal money for urban rail transit projects. The remaining $25 million in the fund will be earmarked for Charlotte’s light-rail line, which has been the only New Starts beneficiary to date. Local officials in the Triangle and other communities with plans for light-rail now will have to compete with highway projects for state money.

* Cut the gas tax, now 38.9 cents per gallon, to a maximum 37.5 cents for the coming year.

* Cut $26 million from a state fund for paving dirt roads and improving other secondary roads.

Senate launches probe into "fraudulent" DOT letters

The Senate Rules Committee chairman launched an investigation today into what he called "fraudulent" letters sent to legislators last week that appeared to reverse the state Department of Transportation's position on the need for $63 million in start-up funds for two toll projects (see today's story with reader comments).

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, said DOT officials would be asked to speak at a Rules Committee hearing Wednesday morning, and representatives of Gov. Bev Perdue's office would be asked to speak at a second hearing Thursday morning.

The letters were drafted Thursday morning by Perdue staffers on DOT stationery and over the signature of Jim Trogdon, DOT's chief operating officer, and appeared to reverse a recommendation Trogdon had made in a June 8 memo to legislative leaders. ... [MORE]

Senate budget hits more ferry riders and paves more dirt roads

The Senate budget released Monday is good news for people who want more pavement for more dirt roads -- and bad news for Ocracoke residents, tourists, commuters and others who rely on the state ferry system.

The Senate rejects proposals by the House and Gov. Bev Perdue to postpone new and increased tolls on state ferry routes – and the Senate goes farther by refusing to exempt two ferries that both chambers had agreed last year to keep toll-free.

Perdue had issued an executive order refusing to collect the new tolls.  The Senate budget explicitly attacks her order as "an unconstitutional attempt to exercise authority" that Perdue does not have, and it orders the Department of Transportation to ignore it.

House leaders had agreed with Perdue that ferry-dependent communities deserve a reprieve while they recover from the effects of recessiona and Hurricane Irene.  The House budget proposed to give the ferry division an extra $2.5 million, to make up for the additional revenues that had been expected from the postponed ferry tolls.

The Senate budget directs the Department of Transportation to institute the higher rates and to collect tolls on all seven DOT ferry routes. That includes two that were exempted a year ago: the Currituck-Knotts Island ferry, used by public school buses, and the state’s busiest ferry route from Hatteras to Ocracoke, used heavily by tourists and Ocracoke residents.

The Senate proposes to kill urban New Starts and regional transit grant programs worth $28 million.  And the Senate would spend $22 million more than the House to put asphalt on unpaved roads.

House transportation budget cuts fall heaviest on secondary road construction

House transportation budget writers decided Thursday where to absorb an expected drop in gas tax collections next year, and they delivered the biggest spending cut to the state's program for paving gravel roads and improving paved secondary roads.

The House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee accepted a plea from Rep. Phil Shepard, a Jacksonville Republican, to ease the damage that a proposed budget would have caused for rural and urban transit programs.  The panel agreed to cut public transit grants by $2.6 million instead of the $8.6 million originally proposed, and it shifted the $6 million difference to the secondary road construction fund.

“Our transit system takes people to the doctor and dialysis and many places our senior citizens can’t get to, in the city (Jacksonville) and in the county (Onslow),” Shepard said in an interview. He said he saw less need for money to pave gravel roads.  (The House transportation money report and Shepard's amendment - which changes some numbers in the money report - are attached to this blog post.) ... [MORE]

Legislative leaders face choices in ferry toll fight with Perdue

GOP legislative leaders were relentless last year in their determination to have passengers pay a bigger share of operating costs for the state ferry system. But since February, when Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue announced a moratorium on collecting new and increased tolls, Republicans have not been in any hurry to take action that would implement the tolls -- which were supposed to start April 1 -- quickly (see today's story with reader comments). [Update: Legislators back repeal of ferry tolls.] 

The tolls were ordered in state budget legislation for five of the state's seven ferry routes, including two commuter ferries that have always operated without tolls.  Republican legislators in coastal counties have heard more protest about the tolls than they expected, from voters who will decide whether to re-elect them this year.

Today the legislature's joint transportation oversight committee is scheduled to consider a proposal to postpone the new tolls for two years, giving coastal residents more time to recover from the effects of the recession and Hurricane Irene.  Several Republicans expressed sympathy for the idea in a recent meeting before committee leaders cut off debate.

Republicans say it is up to Perdue to heed the advice of Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, who says she had no authority to block collection of the tolls.

But if Perdue declines to back down, Republicans face these options: ... [MORE]

Attorney general's opinion: Perdue can't block ferry tolls

In a five-paragraph letter to a House Republican leader, the state attorney general's office offered its opinion Friday that the legislature's order for new and increased ferry tolls is still in effect, despite Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's attempt to stop it.

"We believe that an Executive Order which directly conflicts with a law enacted by the General Assembly raises substantial concerns under our Constitution," Grayson G. Kelley, chief deputy attorney general, concluded in a letter to Rep. Phillip Frye. "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."

The full text of Kelley's letter, dated Thursday and delivered Friday to Frye's office, is below. Check here for details on Perdue's attempt to block the ferry tolls, and here for the texts of two related documents: Perdue's Feb. 29 order and a March 8 memo on the legal issues from Gerry Cohen, one of the legislature's lawyers.

Legal argument against Perdue's ferry toll ban is "black and white," Cohen says

Gov. Bev Perdue argued forcefully for her right to block new state ferry tolls, but the law is against her, a top legislative staff lawyer said today.

"While the facts may be compelling one way or the other for the citizens involved, the legal issues here are black-and-white," Gerry Cohen, who heads the legislature's bill-drafting staff, told the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. "It is my opinion that the governor's order has no force or effect." (See online story with reader comments, and a longer story with reader comments in Friday print edition, and an AP story over constitutional issues raised by Perdue's action.)

See below for the full texts of Perdue's executive order, which put a one-year moratorium on the tolls, and Cohen's memo to legislators.

DOT lays out higher ferry toll rates to take effect ... whenever

State Department of Transportation officials are setting new or higher rates for tolls and commuter passes on five ferry routes, as ordered by the legislature – but they are obeying the governor’s ban on collecting the new tolls.

“We’re in a box now because the law says one thing, but the governor told us not to do it,” said Gene Conti, the transportation secretary.

Proposed rates unveiled today would introduce new charges for pedestrians and for vehicle passengers, who ride free now on ferries where tolls are collected on vehicles and their drivers.

DOT ferry officials figure they will be told eventually to start collecting these new tolls – but nobody knows when that will be. ... [MORE]

Republicans investigate legality of Perdue's block on ferry tolls

Republican legislators are unhappy about Gov. Bev Perdue's decision to block new and increased ferry tolls, and they are looking into the legality of her move.

In a budget they passed over the Democratic governor's veto, Republicans ordered new tolls on two river ferries now used, toll-free, by commuters, and rate increases on three other ferry routes that have tolls now. Perdue declared that DOT has legal discretion to determine whether tolls will be increased, and she announced a one-year moratorium on any toll change.

"Right now we're trying to find out if the governor's decision is legal, to take action on a budget that has been approved," Rep. Phillip Frye, an Avery County Republican, said Thursday. Frye is co-chair of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, which will hear from DOT ferry officials at a meeting next Thursday. "It's a line item in our transportation budget for money going toward the ferries." ... [MORE]

Ferry riders can comment on upcoming toll hikes until Feb. 16

View NC 12 & NC Ferry Routes in a larger map

NCDOT will hold a final public hearing next Wednesday in Pamlico County -- and accept public comment until Thursday, Feb. 16 -- on its  plans to set higher rates for ferry tolls and commuter passes starting April 1.

Under orders from the General Assembly, NCDOT will start charging tolls on two commuter ferries now toll-free, and it will increase rates collected on three ferries where riders pay now (see 1/11/12 story with reader comments and more in 1/4/12 blog post - and more comments and photos with 2/5/12 story).

At the Feb. 15 meeting in Grantsboro, DOT officials will hear public comment after they outline the options they're considering:

Currituck - Knotts Island (Currituck Sound)
Free ferry, 45 minutes. Will remain toll-free. ... [MORE]

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