By Reggie Ponder
Chowan Herald

Monday, January 23, 2017

One potential area of expansion for the North Carolina ferry system would be to connect Inner Banks communities with those on the Outer Banks, a state official says.

Chuck Hefren, of the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, believes expanding the ferry system beyond the seven routes now in operation on the state’s Outer Banks could be accomplished through a public-private partnership.

Hefren, who addressed local officials during a meeting Friday in Edenton, said it could be worthwhile to use passenger ferries, for example, to increase access to locations such as Edenton. More visitors could lead to increased revenue for both the state and local governments, Hefren said.

The Edenton waterfront is ready to receive ferry traffic if a ferry route were established to the town, he said.

Building the additional ferry vessels in North Carolina would also be great for the state, Hefren said, echoing comments by two boat-builders who attended Friday’s meeting. Currently the state operates 22 ferry vessels.

Hefren also said if the private sector were to operate ferries on the sounds of the state, state officials could require that those ferry vessels used be built in North Carolina.

Joseph McClees, a lobbyist representing a number of counties in the region, said the ferries are a well-kept secret and need to be promoted better by the state.

“It’s an asset,” McClees said of the ferry system.

The ferries are also a potential tourist destination, McClees said. People could come to the state to ride the ferries if they were better-publicized, he said.

McClees also believes tourists could come to the Inner Banks region and then use ferries to visit the Outer Banks.

Susan Beckwith of the Inner Banks Inn said water taxis such as those used in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor could also be used to benefit the Inner Banks region.

Michael Reardon, a boat builder who attended Friday’s meeting, also mentioned the possibility of adding a couple of ocean-class ferries to the system to run, say, from Cape May, New Jersy to Nags Head. That could operated as a public-private partnership, he said.

Wit Tuttle of Visit NC urged Hefren to consider the various roles ferries play in different locations, from serving tourists to helping commuters get to work.

“Each ferry route is kind of a different beast,” Tuttle said.

He pointed out that some ferries carry mostly local residents while others serve large numbers of visitors. In certain locations there are no alternatives to the ferry, he added.

Hefren said the state needs to consider return on investment. From that standpoint it could be possible to justify more spending on ferry infrastructure, he said.

Hefren said that if the revenue generated by an increase in visitors turned out to be more than would be raised by an increase in ferry fares, then that can be part of the report he presents to the General Assembly.

Hefren also mentioned the possibility of using the marine transportation system to relieve some of the traffic congestion to the Northern Outer Banks. He also put forward the idea of using ferries as a way to help workers on the Outer Banks’ hospitality industry get to their jobs from their homes in Inner Banks communities.

After the main meeting Friday a smaller contingent remained to hear a presentation on a study by Nicholas Didow, a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, proposing that a privately funded passenger ferry on the Albemarle Sound could be profitable.

The study projects an annual ridership beginning the first year of 107,000, a $13.8 million capital expenditure upfront and annual operating expenses of $1.95 million. The ferry has the potential to be profitable in the first year, according to the study.

An estimated 94 jobs would be created and the study estimates the tourism impact at $14 million.