By JOY CRIST
Two meetings were held this week in Hatteras village and Ocracoke to field public questions and comments about the upcoming passenger ferry for the islands, which is slated to be up and running by 2018.
The meetings were attended by NCDOT and National Park Service (NPS) representatives and were an open house-style forum where visitors could inquire about the project, and specifically, the complementary projects that the NPS is working on to get the passenger ferry project off the ground (or rather, off the docks).
This is certainly not the first time public meetings have been held on the subject, but the project – which was first introduced around 2015 – has been gaining tremendous steam as a myriad of moving parts are coming together at a surprisingly rapid pace.
And there are certainly a lot of moving parts to consider.
Personally, when I first heard that a passenger ferry was coming to Hatteras / Ocracoke, my initial thought was, “So what are people going to do all day when the ferry drops them off at the other end of Hatteras Inlet? Just wander around the Hatteras / Ocracoke ferry terminal? They better not all go anywhere near my shelling beach…” So, with that in mind, I’m assuming that there’s at least a couple people out there who are as slow on the uptick as I am.
Here’s how the new ferry will essentially work: Two 100-passenger ferries will make eight round-trips a day between the Hatteras Ferry docks and Ocracoke Village (i.e. they’ll go to the ferry terminal at Silver Lake Harbor – NOT at the inlet, which is what I originally thought. Duh, Joy.)
The proposed cost to board this ferry will be $15 for a round trip, which will take about 60-70 minutes each way. The ferry will not replace the current vehicle ferry, but will instead be an additional option for primarily day-trippers who want to explore Ocracoke village (or Hatteras village, for that matter).
In addition to the ferry itself, the NPS will help with supporting projects, which includes designated parking areas and covered pavilions, or shelters, for passengers waiting for the next ferry; while Hyde County is proposing a tram to allow visitors to explore more of Ocracoke Village and not just the immediate area near the ferry terminal.
Considering how many things need to come together for this project to come to fruition – boats, shelters, trams, dockage space, etc. – it’s pretty incredible that just a couple years after the idea was proposed, we’re slated for an initial 2018 run. But more on that in a moment…
The Background, and the Reasons Behind the Passenger Ferry
Granted, locals and visitors haven’t had a lot of time to get used to the passenger ferry idea, especially compared to other projects in the works (it took us well over a decade to get a new Bonner Bridge, after all.) But despite a little skepticism here and there, the overall mood is turning from apprehension to excitement if these most recent public meetings are any indication.
Danny Couch, who serves on both the Dare County Board of Commissioners as well as the Dare County Waterways Commission, is one of the converted.
“I was slow to come around to the idea, but I see the merits of it now,” he says. “It’s something that can actually boost the economy, and move people more quickly in the summertime. If Ocracoke does well, we do well, and vice versa.”
This idea – to get more people to Ocracoke Island and consequently southern Hatteras Island – is what drove the concept of the passenger ferry in the first place.
Tourism to Ocracoke Island from Hatteras Island has verifiably dwindled due to long ferry lines and a longer ride.
Until a few years ago, the ferry ran pretty much a straight shot out of the Hatteras Ferry Docks into the federal Rollinson Channel, across Hatteras Inlet, and to the Ferry Docks on south Ocracoke.
Although there were sporadic problems with shoaling, the "old" traditional route worked fine for the majority most of the time, until the past decade or so – initially starting after Hurricane Isabel in 2003, and noticeably deteriorating after Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012.
Now, the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferries have run a longer route to avoid the shoaled section of the channel, which effectively increased the former 40-minute ferry ride to an hour or more, decreasing the number of runs the ferries can make during the day.
And while the number of ferry runs have decreased, (with estimates hovering around 10 less runs per day than when the short route was up and running), the number of visitors to Hatteras Island have increased, with 2016 having the highest number of visitors since, ironically, 2003.
An Ocracoke-Hatteras passenger ferry feasibility study examined this problem and found that 9% of vehicles in line at the Hatteras ferry docks give up and turn around before it’s their turn to go aboard. (And who can blame them? Both fish and relatives start to stink in a car after about an hour or two.)
As a result of the decreased ferry runs and increase in number of vehicle turn-arounds at the ferry docks, the number of cars making the crossing annually dropped from 950,000 in 2008 to roughly 700,000 or so in recent years.
“Dave Hallac, [Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent], pointed out today that elsewhere along the seashore they are reaching new peaks, and Ocracoke is reaching new lows - over a decade lows in visitation,” says Tom Pahl of the Hyde County Board of Commissioners. “Clearly, it has to do with the longer route... It’s not the passage itself that’s discouraging people, but the problem is that the ferry division, even running their ferries at maximum capacity, are still running 30% fewer trips during any given day.”
“We have a lot of people pulling out of line, watching the movement, and realizing it’s going to be hours before they can get on the ferry,” adds Pahl. “A lot of them are day trippers from [areas] up the beach, like Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, and traditionally, they had scheduled a day during their vacation to drive to Ocracoke, and to go through the [Hatteras Island] villages along the way. It’s discouraging to them to get that far and have that long a wait. That explains the decline in visitors to Ocracoke.”
Simply put, it’s time to get the day-trippers back.
“This is an effort by the ferry division to restore the numbers of 2008, and to get more people to Ocracoke village,” says Couch. “With passenger ferries and vehicle ferries, we’re going to have the same amount of people moving, we’re just going to go about it in a different way.”
In fact, the NCDOT 2016 feasibility study found that that 25% of current ferry riders would take the passenger ferry service and would be willing to pay a $15 round-trip toll – easing the congestion at the ferry docks and allowing more visitors in. (You can read the study in its entirety here: https://www.ncdot.gov/projects/PassengerFerryFeasibilityStudy/download/passenger_ferry_report.pdf Fair warning - It’s 52 pages long, but if you don’t have any weekend plans, then go nuts.)
The Inlet, and the Vehicle Ferry
The passenger ferry will indeed get more people to Ocracoke and boost the economy for all of the southern Outer Banks, but it still doesn’t answer the issue of a long-term solution for a shorter vehicular ferry route.
While the two ferries go hand in hand, they are also completely unrelated. (This may be the most confusing sentence ever written, but stay with me.)
“The two ferries go together,” says Couch. “And adding the passenger ferry is not going to compromise the work that is being done by the Waterways Commission. I’m confident that the members [of the Waterways Commission] can see the merits of the passenger ferry, and how it ensures the extra help [and attention] on the importance of keeping Hatteras Inlet as viable access to and from Ocracoke Island.”
“We will have to pool our efforts into the long-term project, to create a shorter, more efficient movement of vehicles down the coast,” he adds. “People have to have their cars to get over here. Regardless of how convenient the passenger ferry is, there’s a large segment of the population who wants to drive.”
The vehicular ferry route also has to be improved, simply because the infrastructure along the entire North Carolina coastline is being improved as well.
“We have to be able to move vehicles up and down the Carolina coast,” says Couch. “Hatteras Island is getting [hundreds of millions of dollars] towards our bridges, Carteret County is opening a four-lane bridge to replace the Morehead drawbridge, and in the same time frame, they’ll also be building a bridge across Gallants Channel. We cannot allow the ferries to be the weak link in moving people along the coastline.”
So essentially, there’s no chance that the passenger ferry will be the “preferred” method, or replace the efforts of the Waterways Commission and other entities to ensure a long-term solution for the shorter route.
It will, however, help with the bottleneck conditions that we have now, that prevent visitors from discovering how amazing Ocracoke is in the first place.
“I don’t see how a passenger ferry could replace the vehicle ferry because of the commitment of the state to move people along the coast,” says Couch. “By having the short channel –the connecting channel - taken care of, these passenger ferries may or may not eventually use it, but it’s all tied in together. It’s about using the inlet to bolster the southern economy of the Outer Banks, which benefits the entire Outer Banks, as well as the state.”
The Current State of the Project, and the Growing Enthusiasm (and Lingering Questions)
Deputy Director of the NCDOT Ferry Division Jed Dixon, who attended the Hatteras and Ocracoke meetings, confirms that the overlying goal is to improve traffic to Ocracoke.
“Conditions in the inlet limit the amount of trips we can run per day,” he said. “What we’re doing is returning service levels to what they were, and this was the best solution from that [2016 feasibility] study.”
And at this point, financing has been secured, plans are in place, and all key players are providing the pieces for the passenger ferry to come together. “We are still on track on a pretty aggressive schedule. That’s what we’re shooting for right now,” says Dixon.
The NPS, which technically hosted the two recent meetings, is currently accepting public comments on the supplemental components of the project that the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is providing – which boils down to parking, dock space, and comfortable waiting areas for passengers.
“These are projects that would help support the ferry,” says Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Dave Hallac. “The improvements we’re proposing to make are not the actual project itself, but supporting elements.”
The really good news about the NPS’s role in the project is that there’s not a lot of excess effort involved, regardless of the eventual outcome. “We’re excited about the way we’re implementing [these aspects], as we see this as a ‘safe to fail’ project,” says Hallac. “If it doesn’t take off, and NCDOT decides at some point to no longer utilize [passenger ferries] as a transportation option, none of the changes we’re making would be difficult to reverse. In fact, shade structures would still be desirable to visitors in the area, so there are very few impacts on our existing users.”
Also, like many other organizations, Hallac is excited with the progression of the project.
“There are a lot of moving pieces. NCDOT and Hyde County have been doing, I believe, a great job in coordinating those different pieces, and getting the communities involved. They genuinely want this to be a successful project, and to be compatible with the local community as well,” says Hallac.
“We think that not only does this provide an opportunity for people to come and visit the island, but it gives a different experience as well. You can walk and bike around the village, which long-term can help with congestion, and [there may be] transportation to the Lifeguarded Beach, and other areas of the seashore.
“We see this as a new opportunity for visitation to the seashore,” he adds. “People can get out, be active, exercise, and experience all the beauty and culture of what’s there without having to be in their vehicle,” he adds.
And in terms of benefits or reasons for excitement, let’s be honest - It’s rare to have so many organizations come together to get a project rolling, and to get it rolling quickly. Bear in mind that in addition to these ferries, shelters, and trams, Hatteras village is also actively working to install walking / biking paths, which will make it an easier day trip destination for on-foot explorers from Ocracoke as well.
“One of the things I have been saying at [these meetings] was that it’s worth paying attention to how well these various agencies of government are working together,” says Pahl. “It’s kind of a rare thing. We’re used to finding inefficiencies and being frustrated, and yet here we are with the NPS, the DOT, and the Ferry Division – all working together with the County of Hyde and the people of Ocracoke - and it’s really a remarkable collaboration. Maybe we pay attention to this [process] as a model in the future - that this kind of thing can be done, and people can work together.”
It’s important to remember as well that the Ocracoke locals have been consulted throughout the process – which is essential, since the locals know the landscape better than anyone else, and are an instrumental resource for determining what works, and what doesn’t.
“[A number of locals] came to that meeting, and it’s been that way all along,” says Pahl. “A lot of times people have become used to public hearings where people feel like it’s a done deal, and something is so complete that their input doesn’t matter, and they think ‘Whatever I say about it, it’s already done.’ This has been an example of the opposite. We have been bringing proposals to the people of Ocracoke, saying this is what we’re proposing to do, but we want your input…. And people in Ocracoke are starting to see that it isn’t a done deal, and that their input is valued.”
Despite the enthusiasm shared by many, there is still some resistance to the passenger ferry in Ocracoke village, and understandably so.
Concerns have risen among Ocracoke locals about the quality of life and what an influx of visitors would mean for the four-square-mile local landscape – especially in the prime summer months. “It’s a fair comment, and I understand that,” says Pahl.
For several years prior to the launch of the passenger ferry, the overwhelming concern has been the dwindling of Ocracoke visitors, especially as other regions of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore have flourished.
Now, new concerns are being raised about how the passenger ferry could create an over-abundance of people in a village that has only so much space to go around. “[We’re] starting to hear voices that ‘enough is enough,’ and that there is such a thing as roads being too jam-packed with people,” says Pahl. “People are concerned it’s a detriment to our quality of life. It’s fair to take that into consideration, and we have to listen to that group as well.”
It’s a fair concern to be sure. But it’s also worth admiring – from a backseat perspective – how well county, state, and even national organizations are working together to solve a problem.
This kind of government teamwork is rare, and it's a hard scenario to find anywhere in the country at the moment. As such, it’s worthy of admiration – especially in terms of listening to what the local people have to say.
“The input from locals has been essential,” says Bill Rich, Hyde County Manager. “And it goes back to the very beginnings when [the company] Valker [performed] the $400k study to determine if passenger ferries would work. All the input was from local shop owners, as well as tourists who love Ocracoke.”
And the passenger ferry could very well be just the beginning.
Rich has been in talks with Dare County Manager Bobby Outten about expanding the project to provide transportation from the northern Outer Banks to the Southern Outer Banks, which ties in nicely with the county’s recent Economic Development plans to install more public transportation.
“It will be a game changer,” says Rich. “I don’t think anyone can envision what these ferries can do yet. It’s such an opportunity to connect Ocracoke and Hatteras... I would love to see a point where Dare Transit picks people up at hotels, condos, etc. and takes them to the ferry dock.”
And while most of us have not had a ton of time to get used to the idea – at least, not compared to other big projects in our region - the underlying intent for a better economy and more local business may pave the way for more excitement.
The reception at this latest crop of meetings was generally a warm one, and this sentiment will likely grow as an unfamiliar and seemingly improbable project floats into reality. (Did you see a passenger ferry coming a decade or two ago? I sure didn’t.)
And you genuinely have to raise a glass to the sheer efficiency and cooperation in the project - an attribute that many would deem rare.
“It’s incredible,” says Rich when referencing the ongoing partnerships, as well as the representatives at this past week’s Ocracoke meeting. “There were 22 people there that were part of the team. It’s hard to imagine pulling this [collaboration] off again.”
But it seems if your sole goal is to work to make your community’s lives better, then good things will likely come.
“We see it as a way to provide more service, and to get more people to Ocracoke Island,” says Dixon. “And we’re excited about the opportunity to be able to do that.”