The Daily Advance Sunday, February 16, 2014

Steinburg: Block Ferry Tolls
By Cindy Beamon. State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he will call for an efficiency study of the N.C. Ferry Division if his effort to block tolls on the Currituck-Knotts Island Ferry fails in the General Assembly.
    Steinburg said this week he will first seek to introduce legislation to exempt the ferry from tolls when the General Assembly convenes in May.
    If the straightforward approach doesn’t work, Steinburg said he will call for a study to make sure the ferry division is not wasting money. He said lawmakers have a duty to make sure the ferry division is operating efficiently before enacting new tolls. Any cost savings that result could be used to help pay for ferry replacements, he said.
    “They need to do that first before they even consider tolls,” said Steinburg.
    In the meantime, a regional group newly charged with deciding if the ferry should be tolled or not tolled seems willing to delay its decision until Steinburg and Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, focus on efforts at the state level, a Currituck commissioner said.
    Steinburg, who expressed doubt earlier about the General Assembly’s willingness to pass an exemption, said he will make an attempt anyway. Steinburg said a packed pubic hearing earlier this month in Knotts Island and the “white knuckle” drive on back roads to get there had convinced him to give it a try. He is also considering some other options should an outright exemption meet resistance in the state Legislature.
    Steinburg said he’ll ask for an efficiency study of the North Carolina Ferry Division, which is not a new idea from the lawmaker.
    Last September, Steinburg called for a closer examination of operations at the North Carolina Ferry Division he claims is wracked by mismanagement, waste and nepotism. He said the problems are rooted in decades of “good old boy” politics dating back to when Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, was powerful leader of the state Senate.
    He also said empty ferry runs, along with per diem gas allowances and “luxurious” waterfront housing for workers, should be scrutinized more closely. A state audit is already under way after a fired ferry division director made similar allegations in a 2011 lawsuit. Steinburg said an efficiency study differs from an audit because it is more focused on cost savings.
    “Our first obligation to taxpayers is to make sure every single avenue of state government is running as efficiently as possible,” he said.
    Steinburg said he’s also checking on a legal question about tolling. He wants to see if it’s legal for North Carolina residents to be exempted from paying ferry tolls. He said exempting residents, while requiring tourists to pay tolls, may keep tolls from becoming a hardship to communities that rely on ferries — like the one at Knotts Island — to get to school and work.
    Cook said he doesn’t have any specific plan in mind but will be meeting with leaders in the House and Senate to consider the best way to block ferry tolls.
    Cook and Steinburg say they have a powerful ally in State Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, who pledged at the Knotts Island hearing that as chairman of the Joint Legislative Transportation Committee, he would look for other ways other than tolls to fund the ferry. “As long as we don’t end up with a toll on that ferry, that’s the key,” said Cook.
    Cook said he is not sure if calling for an efficiency study will help in blocking tolls. “I am inclined to be more direct with it and try to get folks to change their minds,” said Cook. Getting the Senate to go along with an exemption will not be easy, he said, because some lawmakers are “determined to toll the ferries.”
    Right now, the decision to toll or not rests with the Albemarle Regional Planning Organization, made up of county commissioners in the 10-county region. Lawmakers shifted that decision to the regional board in 2013 when adopting a new highway funding plan that aims at making ferries self-sustaining. At first, the change was heralded as a victory for those wanting to keep tolls off the ferries because lawmakers, including those pushing for ferry tolls, would not make the decision.
    Cook said he still thinks the ARPO should make the decision. However. local officials say giving the decision to the ARPO has a big drawback. If the ARPO does not follow the state Department of Transportation’s plan for ferry replacements that includes tolling, then the ARPO will have to dip into highway project money to make up the difference. ARPO chairman Lloyd Griffin said the decision will put some county leaders in a bad position. If member counties without ferries vote to keep ferries toll-free, then they will have less money for highway projects in their own communities, local officials say.
    Currituck Commissionaires’ chairman Paul O’Neal said the decision unfairly pits one county against another when it comes to setting priorities for highway projects. Because of that conflict, Currituck Commissioners formally asked Steinburg and Cook to introduce legislation that would thrust the decision back to state lawmakers. Currituck Commissioner Butch Petrey said most ARPO members he’s talked with appear willing to delay a vote while Steinburg and Cook work out a solution.
    The ARPO could discuss tolls at its March 5 meeting after the state Department of Transportation’s public meetings on its statewide ferry toll proposal. Griffin said Friday the ARPO can support, not support or take no action on the state Department of Transportation’s proposal to fund ferry replacements by charging tolls. Regardless of that decision, the board will have to move forward in selecting 2015 funding priorities for highway projects by July. Without tolls, funds for replacing ferries would have to come from the region’s $32 million for highway projects under the state’s new Strategic Mobility Formula.
    Currituck Commissioners said the ferry tolls are unfair to Knotts Island residents because the ferry is no different from toll-free bridges that offer waterway crossings to motorists. County officials and Knotts Island residents say tolling the ferry is akin to double taxation. O’Neal said North Carolina already levies a higher gas tax than nearby states to keep from tolling highways as do New Jersey and Virginia. The ferries are an extension of the highway system and should not be subject to tolling, he said. “We already have a higher gas tax in the state because we don’t have tolls. Now we are going to have a high tax and tolls. It doesn’t add up,” said O’Neal.
    Commissioner Vance Aydlett and O’Neal said they are not particular about how lawmakers go about making the Knotts Island ferry toll-free. If an efficiency study will help save money that can be re-directed toward ferry replacements, they said they would not object. “My interest is in no tolls. However (Steinburg) figures out to do that I am not going to second guess it,” said Aydlett.