The question of who pays the ferryman is one from ancient Greece, and one’s eternal fate hung in the balance. Loved ones would place coins on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased to ensure they would have the toll to pay Charon the ferryman, whose job it was to take souls across the River Styx to Hades.
Here in North Carolina, the question of who should pay the ferryman can feel no less serious.
For us, the debate is whether those living at the coast should have to pay tolls on the ferry as they travel to and from islands that are unreachable by car. Some NCDOT-operated ferries along the coast charge fares, and others currently don’t. Originally, it appeared that the legislature was going to add more ferries to the list of ones charging tolls.
State Sen. Vickie Sawyer, R-Iredell, told WBTV Charlotte, “It is absolutely not a good use of DOT dollars. 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.”
The counterargument, spearheaded by Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Pamlico, and supported by resolutions from pretty much every county commission and city council for the areas that would be affected, appears to be that the people on the ferries are good working people who are often going to their jobs.
“When I look at the [ferries] here, more or less on the mainland, these are working people’s ferries. Take Nutrien, for example, from Bayview to Aurora. I assure you the best part of everybody that gets on those ferries is going to be people working,” Kidwell said, according to Washington Daily News. (That’s “Little Washington” in eastern North Carolina, in case you were confused on why a DC newspaper was covering the issue.)
It may be true that the majority of those on these ferries are headed to work, but we all have commutes, and the rest of us have to pay for them. There are undoubtedly sad stories of those who are scraping together all they have to make ends meet every month, for whom this will push them further to the brink. But what about those who have identical circumstances in other parts of the state but don’t have their commutes covered by taxpayers?
Kidwell also argued people should think of it like an extension of the highway and that those on the ferries chip into that system. But that’s not how user fees work. A foundational principle of transportation funding is that those who use the services should largely fund them. This is why buses and trains have fares and why, traditionally, the gas tax was put in place.
The idea with the gas tax is that the more one used the highways, the more gas they would buy and the more tax they would pay toward maintaining the highway system. With vehicles now much more fuel-efficient, this is not working nearly as well, so other user fees, like tolling, are being added. But the principle remains: Those using the service pay the toll.
In the case of ferries, though, this is not at all the status quo. Those along the coast are arguing that because, in addition to riding the ferries, they sometimes also drive cars and therefore pay for roads with their gas taxes, that should somehow also cover their ferry commutes. Sure, those gas taxes did chip in, but only for its share of maintaining the roads. Those gas taxes cannot be spent twice and will already be going to the highways. The ferries in question can’t be tacked onto that equation because nobody is paying a user fee for them … at the moment.
Regardless, it seems all the protest from eastern communities was successful in getting the tolls pulled out of the current budget during recent negotiations, according to media reports.
“Ferry tolls have been removed from the budget due to the uprising in the east,” Kidwell was quoted as saying in another Washington Daily News article. “Thanks to all the counties, cities, and chamber for resolutions against them.”
But the logic for this seems shaky at best. It seems a bit more like a special carve-out for a constituency that enjoys a status quo where government is subsidizing their commute to work (and play) and is willing to exercise political muscle to keep it that way. We should expect this to keep coming up until this favoritism ends.
There’s no reason why people going to work everywhere else in the state should have to pay for their commutes but those on the coast should get a free ride. Everyone needs to pay the ferryman.