The area's state senator says putting the ferry toll issue in the hands of the local Rural Planning Organization is the fairest solution for the public, amid state budget-tightening and reforms in Department of Transportation's allocation procedures.
One of seven coastal public hearings on the issue of new and increased tolling on the coastal system is Thursday night at Pamlico Community College. The toll proceeds would go toward buying replacement vessels.
The Down East RPO coordinator Patrick Flanagan said earlier that if RPOs do not request tolls, the state will replace the vessels, with the money coming from an area's overall highway funding.
Opponents of tolls, including on the local Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach route, say shifting the responsibility to the RPOs in effect leaves them with the lesser of two evils.
"It may seem on the surface that it is passing the buck, but these are decisions that need to be made and the more local we can make it, the better," said Sen. Norman Sanderson, R-Pamlico. "The same amount of money is going to be available for whatever our transportation area is. So, do we want people who have no idea of what the ferries mean to us having the biggest say-so? It's hard to convince a majority of 170 legislators how critical ferries are to us."
The ferry toll issue first arose in 2011 when the General Assembly ordered DOT to increase and create new tolls to produce $5 million in annual revenue. A two-year battle ensued, with the state lawmakers last year putting the tolling matter into the RPOs' hands.
Legislation said DOT could not enact tolling changes without a request from the local RPOs, which have two representatives per county.
The Down East RPO is comprised of Craven, Pamlico, Jones, Carteret and Onslow counties. Pamlico representatives include County Commissioner Chris Mele and Minnesott Beach Mayor Josh Potter. Craven's RPO members are Craven Commissioner Johnnie Sampson and Vanceboro Mayor Chad Braxton.
"It is another hard decision," Sanderson said. "We have limited (state) funds and somebody has got to make the decision of where to spend it."
Thursday's public hearing is at the Delamar Center at 7 p.m. on the Pamlico Community College campus on N.C. 306 between Granstsboro and Arapahoe.
The proposed tolls include one-way fares of $3 for standard vehicles 20 feet and under, with an annual pass costing $75.
The Minnesott-Cherry Branch route has three "river class" vessels, including the 25-year-old Kinnakeet, which is scheduled for replacement this year. Two others, the Neuse and the Floyd J. Lupton, are scheduled for replacement in 2023 and 2025, respectively.
The cost of a replacement river ferry is about $12 million to $15 million.
Sanderson said that the cost of building new ferries could be reduced if they were built in North Carolina.
"It's amazing that we have the second largest ferry system in the country and we can't even build a ferry here in North Carolina," he said. "We have to go to Texas or some other state. I know that is costing us extra millions of dollars."
Sanderson said the problem is the state-required bonding cost for builders.
"We've got a company right here in Pamlico County that could help produce these ferries," he said. "The state requires such a high bond, whether it is equipment such as a ferry or on a five-mile stretch of highway."
Sanderson promised to seek changes in statutes to lessen bonds on building of ferries.
"We are going to be trying to change those bonding laws so that a ferry — a piece of equipment — is not bonded under the same rules as a stretch of highways," he said.
He said another idea was a public-private venture on the coast to build ferries, especially the smaller river class vessels.