Coastal North Carolina commuters who rely on two state ferries for the daily trip to work are bracing for the end of a free ride.
The state Department of Transportation ferried more than 100,000 riders across the Pamlico River in Beaufort County last year, and more than 430,000 across the Neuse between Pamlico and Craven counties - all of them toll-free.
Under orders from the legislature, DOT will start charging tolls for every trip in April, with one-way fares suggested by a consultant at somewhere between $4 and $12 per car. Regular riders will have the option to buy commuter passes that could cost $150 or $200 a year, or more.
The new toll will come on the heels of a recent 4-cent increase in the state gas tax, which is DOT's chief funding source for transportation needs including its $38 million ferry budget.
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Ferry riders are unhappy about the prospect of a new charge for routine daily travel.
"I believe the toll for a ferry is double taxation," said the Rev. Bob Cayton, a Beaufort County commissioner. "These are men and women going to work, trying to earn money to support their families. It's discrimination against rural North Carolina, and against one of the poorest counties in the state."
Many riders on the 30-minute Pamlico River ferry work at the sprawling PCS Phosphate mine near Aurora. The biggest employer served by the 20-minute Neuse ferry is the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station at Havelock.
When the ferries are out of service, residents must drive more than 30 miles upriver to the nearest highway bridges in New Bern and Washington.
"It's not fair to say, well, you can drive around," Cayton said. "When you consider the price of gas, it's an unfair burden."
Public meetings are scheduled later this month to air options for new tolls on these two free ferries - and for rate increases on three other routes where tolls are collected now: the two-hour Pamlico Sound ferries from Ocracoke to Swan Quarter and Cedar Island, and the 35-minute Cape Fear River ferry from Southport to Fort Fisher.
DOT collects about $2.1 million a year in toll revenues. The General Assembly wants that figure to reach $5 million by 2014.
Other states' ferry systems collect tolls that average $2 per mile, said Paul Morris, deputy DOT secretary for transit. North Carolina's rates vary from 80 cents to $1.20 on the routes that have tolls, Morris said.
Big ferry systems in other states - Texas, New York, New Jersey and Washington - serve more robust urban markets, where riders can more easily absorb toll increases, he said. North Carolina's ferry system, second in size only to Washington's, is different.
"Our coastal community is a very vulnerable economy," Morris said. "Raising tolls or adding tolls to riders that have not historically had them creates a material impact on residents, businesses and visitors.
"This serves as the coast highway, and the lifeline for that economy - and that economy is fragile."
The four Outer Banks ferry routes carry plenty of tourists and out-of-state residents, but the riders on the river ferries are almost all locals.
"I ride the ferry 10 times a week, and so does my wife," said Paul Abare, who lives on the northern shore of the Neuse, a mile from the Minnesott Beach ferry dock. "The commute we have will change dramatically if it becomes prohibitively expensive."
Abare runs a marina near Havelock, on the Neuse's southern shore. His wife drives farther south each day to work in Morehead City.
"If it comes down to it, and I have to pay $200 for the year to avoid having to drive an extra 100 miles a day to get to work, it's a no-brainer," Abare said. "Even paying $5 a day, it's worth it. I really appreciate the ferry service."
But he said the extra cost will cause hardship for many residents.
"The people that use these ferries as commuters coming from the phosphate plant or going to Cherry Point are really going to get hurt by this financially," Abare said. "These people are the 99 percent. They're driving old pickups."
DOT officials are expected by late February to set toll rates for cars and other vehicles, for pedestrians - and possibly for individual passengers in each car. The new tolls and commuter pass fees are to take effect April 1.