Ferry riders pay tolls that cover less than 6 percent of operating costs for the State Ferry Division. House budget writers want to see that figure rise to 100 percent.
“In an era of declining revenues, we need to take a look at this – given what we know about their operating costs,” said Rep. Grier Martin of Raleigh, co-chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.
Martin’s subcommittee this week endorsed a Senate proposal to increase the Ferry Division’s operating budget by $11.3 million next year, to a total of $43.5 million. Jim Westmoreland, a Department of Transportation deputy secretary, said the money was needed to meet increased costs while maintaining current service levels.
Along with its budget recommendations, the subcommittee proposed a measure that would have DOT develop a fee schedule “for all ferry routes in an amount necessary to cover the operating costs.”
Exceptions would be made for students and teachers who ride the ferry to school, and there would be consideration also for commuters who use the ferries daily.
Riders now pay tolls only on the ferries to Ocracoke from Cedar Island and Swan Quarter ($15 per car), and from Fort Fisher to Southport ($5). The other four North Carolina routes are toll-free – including the state’s busiest ferry, from Hatteras to Ocracoke, with more than 900,000 riders and 300,000 cars each year.
“It’s a regional issue,” said Rep. Nelson Cole of Reidsville, the subcommittee’s other co-chairman. “It’s hard to convince people in the mountains that we should be supporting the ferries to that extent, when the toll fees are the most reasonable anywhere.”
A 2009 N.C. State University study commissioned by DOT found that several states charge much higher tolls for comparable ferry services. New York, Washington, Delaware and Maine charge $4.13 to $13.60 a mile for service comparable to North Carolina’s three river ferries and the Hatteras ferry, all toll-free, the NCSU study said.
The proposed $43.5 million budget would be supported with an expected $2.3 million in toll collections, with the rest coming from DOT’s Highway Fund, which is supported by fees and fuel taxes.
Martin and Cole’s subcommittee endorsed a transportation budget for inclusion in a House budget plan to be released next week. Other items would:
* Establish Gov. Bev Perdue’s proposed N.C. Mobility Fund, which was excluded from the Senate budget. Instead of $97 million in transfers and fee hikes proposed by Perdue, the House plan would provide only $39 million from money that had been appropriated, but not used, by the N.C. Turnpike Authority.
* Cut Global TransPark Authority funds by 50 percent ($640,000). Officials said the agency missed a recent filing deadline for a report on its plan to repay a $37.8 million debt to the state.
* Preserve $5.6 million in highway maintenance funds cut in the Senate budget.
* Save $3.2 million eliminating 51 vacant DOT jobs.