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Coastal county fights ferry tolls in NC budget plan

State-run ferries connecting coastal communities could come with a toll under a Senate budget proposal.
Colin Campbell
State-run ferries connecting coastal communities could come with a toll under a Senate budget proposal.

Pamlico County commissioners are calling on state lawmakers not to add tolls to coastal ferries in North Carolina.

Commissioners in the county east of New Bern passed a resolution this week opposing a plan to toll all ferries. Currently, only a few of the state's ferries charge a toll, and those primarily serve tourists.

Pamlico leaders say the proposed tolls would amount to an unfair tax on local commuters trying to reach their jobs across the Neuse and Pamlico rivers. The resolution says Pamlico residents already pay more than their share of gas taxes because living in a rural area means more driving.

The Senate's budget proposal would add tolls on free ferries serving Minnesott Beach, Knotts Island and Aurora. The House didn't include the change in its budget, and the two chambers are currently negotiating the final legislation.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

Ken Heath, the mayor of Arapahoe in Pamlico County, says residents of the small town commute to jobs and schools on the ferry that crosses the Neuse River.

"It’s just not right to charge people to go to school or go to work," he said. "That’s ultimately what’s happening: the state is about to charge people to go to work."

Heath says he's lobbying lawmakers to drop the tolling proposal from the final budget bill. He says the tolls would serve as a pay cut for Pamlico residents who work across the river in places like Morehead City and the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point.

"We're 100 on the scale of 100 counties for pay scale," he said. "So ultimately, this is a gigantic impact to the ability for people to provide for their families, getting gas, getting groceries."

The delayed budget also means less funding this summer for the Ocracoke Express passenger ferry, which allows tourists to travel without their cars from Hatteras to the island for day trips. That service will end early this year, with its final runs set for July 31.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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