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Looks like two ferries will stay toll-free

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Accepting the same rationale that was used last week to benefit riders on the busy Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry, the House voted 115-1 this morning to keep the less busy Currituck - Knotts Island ferry toll-free.

So two routes that carry one-third of all ferry traffic will not be tolled. That'll make it harder for NCDOT to offset a $10 million cut in state ferry spending.

House leaders originally planned to require that DOT collect tolls on all four routes that are free now: Hatteras-Ocracoke, Currituck-Knotts Island, Bayview-Aurora, and Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach. 

Tolls also would have to be increased on the three routes where riders pay now:  Southport - Fort Fisher (now $5 per car) and Cedar Island-Ocracoke and Swan Quarter-Ocracoke (both now $15 per car).

They made an exception last week to preserve a toll-free link to the mainland for Ocracoke Islanders on the Hatteras ferry, which carries more than 300,000 vehicles a year.

The Knotts Island ferry, which handles 25,000 vehicles a year, got the same deal in a House floor vote today.

Knotts Island actually is a peninsula that juts out from the Virginia mainland into North Carolina's Currituck Sound. Its residents do have a toll-free road connection to North Carolina -- but it is a circuitous route that begins in Virginia.

"There is a way to get to it, but you've got to wind through a lot of winding roads," Rep. Bill Owens, an Elizabeth City Democrat who proposed the exemption, said on the House floor. "This is a road, this ferry, and this [amendment] basically says this road would not be tolled."

Rep. Phillip Frye, a Spruce Pine Republican who helped shape the transportation portion of the House budget, agreed that Knotts Island riders -- including children on a few school buses that cross the water each day -- should not have to pay.

"We're working hard trying to figure out how to toll the ferries in a responsible way, and we understand that it really creates a problem when there's no way to an island other than the ferry," Frye said. "We have two islands involved."

The proposed House budget would cut $10 million from state funding for the DOT Ferry Division. It would require DOT to increase toll collections by $5 million in FY 2011-12 and by $7.5 million in FY 2012-13.

The state's seven ferry routes carried 917,000 vehicles last year. Now that House Republicans have decided not to collect tolls on two routes that carried more than one-third of that load, they might have to scale back their hopes for how much new toll revenue DOT can collect from the remaining two-thirds of its ferry traffic.

The Senate will consider the same issues when it takes up the budget later this spring.

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About the blogger

Bruce Siceloff reports on traffic and transportation. A News & Observer reporter, editor and blogger since 1976, he took over the Road Worrier column in 2003. Lately he drives I-40 with the cruise control set at 68 mph. You can e-mail Bruce, call him at 919-829-4527, check out his Crosstown Traffic blog or follow him (@Road_Worrier) on Twitter.