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Scott Mooneyham: Lawmakers pass the sword to locals on funding ferries

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RALEIGH — It would be nice to think of our state legislators possessing the wisdom of Solomon.

That may not be the case, but when it comes to the state’s ferry system, they have pulled a Solomon-like maneuver, essentially letting locals decide how best to divide the baby.

The baby, here, is the operation of toll-free or minimal-cost ferries along the North Carolina coast.

Since 2011, legislators have been eyeing ferry tolls to pay for a higher portion of the cost of ferry operations.

That year, legislators included a provision in the state budget that called for the collection of tolls on two free ferries and increased tolls on three others. Then-Gov. Beverly Perdue responded by issuing an executive order — a move that legislative leaders characterized as unconstitutional at the time — that held off enforcement of the provision for a year.

During that year, legislators got an earful from coastal residents and decided to back down a bit.

In 2013, they charted a new course. They fetched a budget sword and handed it to local planning advisory groups, giving them the power to decide whether they wanted to divide or keep whole their free ferries.

Those local groups that chose not to end free ferries or raise toll rates would have to pay for replacement ferries out of the same regional transportation budgets that pay for roads and bridges.

According to The Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, at least one of those regional planning organizations has declined to make the decision and instead wants legislators to decide. The organization oversees the area that includes the Minnesott Beach-Cherry Branch Ferry, crossing the Neuse River not far from New Bern and Havelock.

Apparently, the local appointed officials involved didn’t want this political hot potato either.

An obvious reason is that this particular ferry is used by service members and workers employed at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station at Havelock.

Another free ferry, one crossing the Pamlico River south of Bath is similar. It is primarily used, not by tourists, but by workers employed at the Potash Corp phosphate mines near Aurora.

Another ferry, the one connecting Hatteras to Ocracoke, goes to an island that is only accessible by ferry.

Perhaps the push by lawmakers to toll all ferries has run into these snags over the last few years because it ignores the unique circumstances of each ferry.

The idea of letting local officials sort through whether and how much to toll ferries may be a better solution than forcing tolls.

But does it fully account for the fact that some transportation needs can’t be defined by only their local importance?

So, Solomon-like maneuver or not, don’t be surprised to see the powers in Raleigh continue to haggle over the operations of the ferries and how to pay for them.

They may have called for a sword, but just like Solomon, who really wants to use it?

Capitol Press Association

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