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April 5, 2013

Coastal legislators push for elimination of all NC ferry tolls

By Bruce Siceloff —

Norman Sanderson survived his freshman year in the state House of Representatives somehow, even after he voted to impose tolls on his fellow ferry commuters in Craven and Pamlico counties.

Now a first-term senator, Sanderson has updated his position on the state’s plan to jack up the rates for three coastal ferries whose riders already pay tolls, and to start charging riders on two river ferries that have always been fare-free:

He is against it, now.

So are two more legislators who, like Sanderson, voted in 2011 to approve the toll increases. The three coastal Republicans are among nine sponsors of bipartisan House and Senate bills filed last week to cancel the new tolls, scheduled to take effect July 1.

And while they’re at it, they want to make all state ferries toll-free. That would include the two-hour cruises across Pamlico Sound from the mainland to Ocracoke Island, where tourists and other travelers have always paid for their passage.

“If that money were spent at one of the businesses out there instead, a restaurant or a motel where tourists spend money, we would see a much bigger income for the state and also make it more profitable for small businesses,” Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, told the Road Worrier.

This is an optimistic argument that legislators in both parties sometimes offer to justify cutting taxes, but it runs against a Republican tide of support for tolls and other user fees. State budget writers want the state Department of Transportation to generate $5 million a year in toll collections – double the current take – to cover some of the $35 million Ferry Division budget.

DOT mostly pays for ferries with the gas and diesel fuel taxes that also pay for roads and bridges. But gas tax collections are declining these days, thanks to Prius people and other fuel-frugal drivers.

So how would DOT make up for the loss of $5 million a year in ferry tolls?

Sanderson and his fellow toll foes answer that question with more optimism. They figure DOT can cut costs by cutting ferry service generally. They’d like to see the state make money from concession stands on ferries and at the docks, and from the sale of WiFi service, advertising and perhaps the naming rights for ferry boats.

“Can you imagine being able to ride on a boat that’s named, say, The News & Observer?” said Sen. Bill Cook, a Beaufort County Republican who was, like Sanderson, a House member in 2011 when he voted for the toll increases.

“There will be a lot of advertisers that want to put their names on these boats. They get a lot of riders in the summer. It’s a tremendous advertising opportunity. I don’t know why we didn’t do it before,” Cook said.

DOT’s money-making potential is limited by the Umstead Act, which keeps the state from competing with private business. The law might also constrain prospects for making money at the ferry shipyard in Mann’s Harbor by providing dry-dock services to commercial boaters or, say, Virginia’s state-owned ferries.

The new toll schedule was drawn up by DOT officials who evaluated some of those money-making ideas.

“The opportunities exist, but the net benefits of doing it aren’t as extensive as people might hope,” said Paul Morris, former DOT deputy secretary for transit.

Rep. Frank Iler, a Brunswick County Republican, said it might be tough to roll back the legislature’s decision to raise ferry tolls. The chief toll advocate has been Iler’s Brunswick neighbor, Republican Sen. Bill Rabon.

“He and I agree on about 99 percent of things,” Iler said. “Sen. Rabon is in favor of tolling all the ferries, and I’m in favor of none.”

Sanderson, who lives in Arapahoe, relies on a state ferry to cross the Neuse River each day to his business, a child-care center in Havelock. At raucous public meetings over the past couple of years, he has been reminded that other commuters rely on the ferry, too.

“I’ve been riding it for 30 years, and I know how important it is to our local economy,” Sanderson said. “The folks that live here use the ferry to go back and forth to work, to go to the doctor. They see this as part of their highway, and so do I. They already pay a very high (tax) rate to operate our highways, and this is just an additional rate they’re being asked to pay.

“If we can find a way to make this work and reduce those (toll) rates or eliminate them altogether,” Sanderson said, “then I think it’s going to bring more people to North Carolina.”

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