THE COASTLAND TIMES Sunday, February 9, 2014.

Meet on proposed toll for Knotts Island ferry draws a crowd

By LINDA CAIN. Knotts Islanders made a continual stream into the gymnasium of Knotts Island Elementary School Tuesday night, February 4 until a couple hundred of them filled a section of bleachers.
    They were there to learn about the idea to put a toll on the ferry, and they were joined by plenty of others - NC Board of Transportation representative, deputy Secretary of Transportation, ferry director, division engineer and others from the Department of Transportation who put on the evening’ s presentation.
    Also, NC Senator Bill Cook, NC Representatives Bob Steinburg and John Tolbert, Currituck county commissioners and other county officials, Board of Education members and other school officials, and representatives of the Rural Planning Organization (RPO) were in attendance.
    Some say the RPOs, committees across the state that represent transportation priorities to the Board of Transportation, have been given the authority to decide tolling issues, others say the RPOs have been passed the buck.
    Currituck is one of 10 northeastern counties in its RPO, that is DOT’s Division 1, and each is represented on that committee by a local official. Currituck’s representative is commissioner Butch Petrey, who was joined Tuesday by the RPO’s chairman Lloyd Griffin of Elizabeth City.
    The process says that the RPO can choose whether or not to toll a previously untolled ferry route - such as the Currituck to Knotts Island Ferry.
    Money generated from the tolls would be put into a fund earmarked only for vessel replacement - a dedicated funding source that would not impact any other transportation projects and allow DOT to plan for replacements.
    Without the tolls, the purchase of a new boat would be put into the pot along with all the other transportation projects in the division, where it may or may not score well, and may effect the other projects also competing for the same $32 million in anticipated division funding. Some of those projects include the highway widening planned in Currituck and elsewhere.
    The one-pot-funds-all is also a new twist coming from Raleigh, which puts all road. airport, rail, public transit, bike paths, etc. In competition with one another for funding.
    Griffin told the crowd Tuesday night, that the RPOs should not be the deciding factor, and is planning to seek support for changing the law to that effect.
    Petrey agreed. He commented prior to the meeting that only two counties represented in the RPO have ferries, and he is trying to gather support for no toll from the other members. Petrey said that it is simply not fair that ferries are not considered for funding the same as other forms of transportation like roads and bridges.
    Rep. Tolbert commented that he is “sick and tired” of the division between the different sections of the state, advocating that it is time for everyone to work together. Tolbert said the tolls are a hunt for new revenue, but that now is not the time to add more financial burden to citizens, and that as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for Transportation, Tolbert said he believed the money generated by the tolls could be found elsewhere.
    Taking more disposable income from people with tolls has a huge impact, Tolbert said, adding that ferries are just moving bridges and that not one bridge is tolled to pay for its replacement. Rep. Steinburg said that he has been “back and forth” on the issue, but that seeing the people the tolls will impact has given him a different perspective than the way things looked from his desk in Raleigh, where the cost didn’t look like it would create a hardship. Steinburg concluded by telling the crowd that he would do everything he could to keep the tolls off the Knotts Island Ferry, “you have my word.”
    Sen. Cook told the citizens that the “power is in you” to change the tide on tolls, urging people to contact state legislators with their concerns. The senator asked for support from the citizens so the process can be delayed to give lawmakers a chance to change things legislatively. “With your help we can do this,” Cook concluded.
    Currituck commissioners’ chairman Paul O’Neal agreed that it will take legislation to change the plan for tolling, and asked that at least, exempt Knotts Island Ferry, from the process; as commissioner Petrey concurred with giving state legislators time to keep their promises.
    Knotts Island and Hatteras were both exempt when tolls came up a couple of years ago.
    O’Neal also suggested that tolling ferries is just the beginning and that bridges and sections of highway may be next, adding that tolling the Knotts Island Ferry is double taxing residents who already pay a gas tax to fund transportation.
    DOT figures that it will take $120 million to fund a 20 year boat replacement plan – that calls for three new tugs, three new barges and nine new ferries during those 20 years. So, putting aside $6 million each year will pay for the new vessels.
    Trouble is, current funding is about $1 million a year from federal grants and from estimated advertising/concessions/naming rights.
    Tolls are meant to make up the $5 million a year shortfall.
    Annual toll revenue from Division 1 (Knotts Island, Hatteras, Swan Quarter, Cedar Island) is projected at $2.8 million; Division 2 (Cedar Island, Cherry Branch, Bayview) is $1.46 million; Division 3 (Southport), $870,000 for a total just over $5 million.
    The Knotts Island Ferry is projected to generate $85,000 in tolls annually. Ridership is about 24,000 vehicles a year, with an operating cost of about $3.8 million.
    Jamille Robbins, who led the presentation for DOT Tuesday, pointed out that North Carolina has the second largest ferry system in the nation, handling 1.9 million passengers and 835,000 vehicles last year with an operating budget of $40 million.
    Former senator Stan White commented that he can’t believe how this part of the state is being treated, that people complain about funding ferries, when everyone pays taxes for roads they may never use, at a cost of $23 million a mile for four lanes of highway.    He also noted that under the former funding formula, Division 1 received over $80 million for transportation needs, an amount cut to the $32 million mark under the new formula.
    Currituck commissioner Paul Martin commented that the $40 million to run the ferry system is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the $21 billion state budget, and that it is “ludicrous” to even consider tolling.
    Commissioner David Griggs noted that if the tolls are approved, they will never go away.
    Chairman of the Currituck County Republic Party and former county commissioner, Owen Etheridge noted the party is unanimously opposed to the tolls.
    Currituck Chamber of Commerce president Josh Bass commented that Knotts Islanders will be more inclined to shop in Virginia than pay a toll to shop in Currituck, and will take their state sales tax with them.
    Commissioner and Knotts Island resident Vance Aydlett pointed out that the ferry was first put in service in 1962 for three main reasons - to join the remote Knotts Island to North Carolina, to educate Knotts Island children in North Carolina schools, and to improve economic development in northeastern North Carolina. He contended those reasons still hold true today.
    The tolls being considered (one way): pedestrian $1, bicycle $2, motorcycle $3, vehicles under 20 feet $7, vehicles 20-40 feet $14, over 40 feet $28.
    There is also a plan for annual passes: pedestrian $40, bicycle $75, motorcycle $75, vehicles under 20 feet $150, 20-40 feet $175, over 40 feet $225.
    The Knotts Island citizens who spoke, over a dozen, made their own-case against the tolls very well.
    Several urged those DOT folks who came over on the ferry, to take the drive back and see the dark, winding and narrow roads they have to travel if not for the ferry, roads that also meander through Virginia.
    One Virginia woman complained that if the Knotts Island Ferry is tolled, more people will be using the roads she pays taxes for but North Carolinians do not.
    A special ferry run was arranged to accommodate DOT officials and mainland folks who came to the public hearing, the first of seven meetings scheduled in the areas served by ferries. That boat was scheduled to leave the dock at 9:30 p.m., before the hearing actually-concluded after 10 p.m.
    There are about l,500 people who live on Knotts Island. and citizen speakers pointed out that many are senior citizens and others on fixed incomes. Paying $14 for a round trip to and from mainland Currituck that used to be free, means doing without something else to come up with that toll.
    While an annual pass would be a savings for those who ride the ferry often, it wouldn’t be beneficial to someone who rides once in a while.
    People routinely travel to the mainland to take care of county business, use county services, go to the DMV, go to work, go to the YMCA, the food bank, to shop.
    There are also families with children who participate in after-school activities - band concerts, sports, clubs. While school buses are proposed to be exempt from the tolls on all ferry routes, students often have to drive in order to take part in those activities, so would not be on the exempted bus, and some students walk on as passengers.
    Former 36-year member on the board of education, John Barnes pointed out the importance of keeping children in school. One of the ways to do that is to involve parents, and another is the after-school involvements - both mean more ferry rides.
    Currituck County recently hired the McClees Consulting group out of Oriental to lobby for the county on issues impacting the county’s tourism and economy overall, including the ferry toll. Speaking on behalf of that group, attorney S. Henri McClees, said that the initial numbers provided by DOT on the tolls, annual passes, moneys needed for replacements, are not enough to do anything and will rise.
    While buses are on the list of exemptions, DOT does not have to give them, she commented, suggesting the numbers provided and promises by DOT are not worth the paper written on, and tore up the handout provided at the start of the evening.
    In addition to buses, other proposed exemptions: state/local government vehicles in working status, emergency vehicles, evacuations, people on jury duty.
    Citizens questioned how much it will cost to implement the toll system (an estimated $1 million).
    “We ride the ferry to save money," was one comment. Others included: It was the only way on and off the island recently when an accident on NC 615 closed the road for eight hours; one suggested that the county should come up with the $85,000 the tolls are expected to generate so the citizens don’t have to pay; and others expressed disappointment that only two members of the RPO attended.
    Fundraising efforts on Knotts Island, including the annual Peach Festival, depend on people coming from the mainland, it was noted. Another commented that families will think twice.
    “Please don’t make it a burden to live here,” one citizen urged.


No question how Knotts Islanders feel about tolls on their toll-free ferry from Currituck.
    They jammed the local elementary school in protest at a public hearing Tuesday evening. “I already pay taxes,” said one resident.
    “It will be a big economic impact on this island,” said another. “Eighty-five percent of my business is day-trippers. You cut that in half.”
    Still another said his daughter rides the ferry to work and that tolls for the round trip would cost her two hours of wages a day. The parents of school children who ride the ferries were also dismayed.
    Tuesday’s hearing conducted by the state Department of Transportation was the first of seven on proposed tolls for both the toll-free ferries to Knotts and Ocracoke islands as well as higher tolls on the state’s five other systems.
    Further hearings will include one at the Ocracoke School, 7 0’clock next Wednesday evening. (Feb. 12), and Thursday evening in Hatteras at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.
    The Hatteras-to-Ocracoke ferry is the busiest in the state and a boon to the area’s tourist economy (70 percent of its riders are visitors), but Tuesday’s hearing on Knotts Island set the tone for what’s likely to come.
    Currituck County Commissioner H.M. “Butch” Petrey said ferries are simply bridges that move. “Why would you separate ferries from bridges?” he asked. “Bonner Bridge replaced a ferry.”
    Petrey intends to vote against the tolls as a member of the 10-county Albemarle Rural Planning Organization that will be asked whether it is willing to go along with the DOT’s plans.
    Nothing is final at this point. State legislators will have the final say.
    But for now local ferry boat riders have made themselves heard — loud and clear — about tolls on the movable bridges between Currituck and Knotts Island.