N.C. pays how much for a ferry system?

NCDOT spends millions to operate ferries while charging Charlotte drivers to build new highways.
NCDOT spends millions to operate ferries while charging Charlotte drivers to build new highways.
Published: Jun. 30, 2023 at 11:58 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 30, 2023 at 12:13 PM EDT
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Minnesott Beach, N.C. (WBTV) - A steady stream of cars waited in line to board the ferry from Minnesott Beach one recent afternoon in June.

One by one, cars, vans and even an 18-wheeler flatbed slowly pulled onto the boat, guided by a crew skilled at packing as many vehicles as possible onto the vessel.

The ride is free for passengers and takes less than 30 minutes to cross the Neuse River.

But every car that pulled onto the boat cost North Carolina taxpayers $23.

A WBTV investigation has found the state’s ferry division costs taxpayers, on average, $34 per passenger to operate, according to the latest NCDOT semi-annual cost per ferry route report.

Two routes, both to Ocracoke, cost the state more than $80 per passenger to operate.

A NCDOT ferry crosses the Neuse River, en route to Cherry Branch, N.C.
A NCDOT ferry crosses the Neuse River, en route to Cherry Branch, N.C.(Corey Schmidt)

The state’s continued funding of the ferry system--many routes of which are free for passengers--as Charlotte-area drivers are being made to pay tolls to use new lanes on local highways. State transportation planners have said there is no money to build additional free lanes on I-77 between mile marker 11 and the South Carolina state line. And the new lanes being built on I-485 will also be tolled.

State Senator Vickie Sawyer (R-Iredell), a top transportation appropriator, wants to see the funding model for the state’s ferry system changed.

“It is absolutely not a good use of DOT dollars,” Sawyer said in an interview, noting nearly every route has an alternate route over land.

“When I’m paying $25 for my family to be able to access the city of Charlotte, then these people who are going across the beautiful Pamlico River should be able to pay a toll as well.”

NCDOT data shows the ferry system hauled 1.6 million passengers last year, at a cost of $54.7 million.

A spokesman for NCDOT, Jamie Kritzer, defended the state’s funding for the ferry system in a statement.

“The state Ferry System has served for over 75 years as a lifeline for many North Carolinians. It is the only way to and from Ocracoke Island, and is the only transportation for many business owners, tourists and other commuters needing to get to jobs, educational opportunities, shopping and medical appointments,” Kritzer said.

Kritzer’s statement did not address the discrepancy between the per-passenger spend on the ferry system and roads in the Charlotte area but said the amount of money spent on the ferry system is comparatively low.

“For comparison, the Ferry System has a $58 million budget this year, which was approved by state legislative transportation committees and the General Assembly,” Kritzer said. “This budget constitutes roughly 3% of the $2 billion currently projected to build the I-77 South Express Lanes project, which was requested and approved by the local planning organization, per state law.”

Sawyer is working to change the way transportation is funded in North Carolina; a necessary exercise as the traditional source of transportation funding--the gas tax--is forecast to continue declining.

One thing she wants to change is funding for the ferry system.

“For me, the ferry system is valuable for that community but that should be funded either by that community or just like municipal governments do when they build a park or they have a recreation center,” Sawyer said. “That should be funded with local dollars.”