U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., filed a bill Nov. 18 with the goal of funneling more money into the state’s ferry system.
The bill would tweak the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) grant criteria for passenger ferries, removing the requirement that recipients must meet the Secretary of Commerce’s definition of an “urbanized area.” These population bases must have at least 50,000 people to meet the definition and therefore, the DOT’s grantmaking criteria.
In fiscal year 2020, DOT awarded 12 ferry systems across the U.S. an average of $3.9 million each.
North Carolina has no chance of nabbing any of these funds, as none of its seven routes are situated in areas that meet the federal urbanized definition. Both Southport and Kure Beach (the nearest incorporated area, as the Fort Fisher ferry is in unincorporated New Hanover County) have populations of fewer than 5,000 people.
“While urban ferry systems receive some federal support, North Carolina’s ferry system operates in rural communities and, as such, does not enjoy such support,” N.C. Transportation Secretary Eric Boyette said in a press release.
North Carolina operates the second-largest state-run ferry system in the U.S. It’s also one of the most subsidized in terms of recouping fare revenues.
NCDOT’s ferry division is funded by a combination of legislative appropriations, transportation taxes and tolls. Given $50 million to operate in fiscal year 2020, the ferry division made up just 1% of NCDOT’s total budget.
Ferry infrastructure projects compete with other state transportation items biannually. For the Southport–Fort Fisher route, $2.5 million in new mooring facilities is budgeted for fiscal year 2025-2026 and a new $4.6 million vessel is budgeted in 2029; however, these prioritizations are subject to change.
An economic impact study released last year found the ferry system contributes $735 million to the economy, including direct, indirect and induced effects.
The Southport-Fort Fisher route transported 205,000 vehicles in 2017, carrying an average 2.5 passengers, with ridership peaking in summer months. Servicing a balance of tourism, work trips and regular commuters, the 3.5-mile route supports 1,075 jobs, generates $135 million in economic contributions and provides $5.7 million in tax revenue, according to the study.
Ridership along the Southport–Fort Fisher route is approaching pre-COVID levels, according to an NCDOT spokesperson. So far in 2021, the route has carried 146,520 vehicles. Ridership has taken a downturn in recent years, according to figures shared by the spokesperson, down 17% between 2017 and 2019. A seven-month-long service disruption in 2020 while crews replaced the Southport and Fort Fisher ramp and gantry systems, a $3 million project, significantly impacted ridership.
“North Carolina ferries are critical for those who live, work, and vacation in our coastal communities," Rouzer said in the release. "They also serve as a lifeline for evacuating thousands of people ahead of dangerous storms and hurricanes.”
Rouzer said there’s no reason the state’s ferry system should be excluded from competing for needed investments on the federal scene.
The Rural Ferries Fairness Act is cosponsored by the state’s other U.S. coastal representatives, Reps. Greg Murphy (NC-03) and G.K. Butterfield (NC-01). Inland Rep. David Price (NC-04) also cosponsored the bill. Upon filing, it was referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, of which Rouzer serves as a member.
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