Ferry, bridge could be cut
By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The proposed mid-county bridge and the Knotts Island ferry in Currituck could be on the chopping block.

Both are included in a newly released list of possible spending cuts that state legislators plan to consider during upcoming budget deliberations.

State Sen. Stan White said he received the 100-page list of reduction options from the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Monday night. Among the possible cuts would be eliminating the Knotts Island ferry altogether and cutting state “gap” funding for the mid-county bridge.

White, D-Dare, said those projects and a broad range of other “devastating” budget cuts may be up for consideration as the Republican-controlled Legislature eyes ways to cut costs during a tight budget year.

Currituck County officials plan to meet with top-ranking Republicans and appropriations committee members this week to lobby against the possible cuts.

Vance Aydlett, chairman of the Currituck Board of Commissioners, said eliminating the ferry would have a “devastating effect on school children,” as buses would be forced to drive the more time-consuming route through Virginia. Aydlett, a Knotts Island resident, said the hour-and-a-half drive on narrow two-lane roads through Virginia Beach and Chesapeake is also a safety concern.

Possible cuts to funding for the mid-county bridge have also prompted Currituck officials to rally support for the span that would cross the Currituck Sound from the mainland to the Outer Banks. Last year, the General Assembly, at the recommendation of now-retired Senate leader Marc Basnight, approved gap funds needed to keep down tolls in the public-private venture.

The first installment of the $15 million a year was set to begin this year, but a Republican takeover of the legislature and a $2.4 billion state budget deficit have threatened the project.

Currituck commissioners recently reaffirmed their support of the bridge.

In addition, the Currituck Chamber of Commerce has alerted interest groups to send letters to state legislators in support of the span, estimated to cost between $600 million and $800 million.

Jim Owens, member of the Chamber’s Legislative Affairs Committee, said the span has long been supported by area businesses and a majority of local residents. He said the Chamber was prompted to act because of upcoming budget deliberations and because of the “culture change in Raleigh.”

“This year there could be some members (in the legislature) who are not favorable to the Currituck bridge, so we have to be vigilant to make sure that we cover the bases,” he said.

Aydlett said cuts in gap funding would end a project that has gained strong community support over more than two decades.

“It would be a blow to the vision that has been supported by a majority of residents of Currituck County for 25 years,” he said.

State Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said critics of the bridge need to understand the long history of the proposed project and its importance to the county and the region. He said the meeting between lawmakers and county officials will be aimed at clearing up “misunderstandings” about how the project was funded.

Cutting the projects would have an adverse effect on the local economy, local officials said.

The mid-county bridge promises to open up business opportunities on Currituck’s mainland, Bill Owens said.

Aydlett said eliminating the ferry would hurt Knotts Island economically by cutting it off from the rest of North Carolina. He said motorists enjoy taking the ferry across the sound and visiting the two wineries and restaurant on Knotts Island. Area residents also use the ferry to conduct business and attend meetings at the county governmental complex, he said.

Without the ferry, “Knotts Island would be a dead-end road to nowhere,” Aydlett said.

According to the N.C. Ferry Division, almost 28,000 vehicles and 85,000 passengers — including two buses loaded with students each school day — crossed the Currituck Sound by ferry in 2009.

The list of possible state budget cuts also includes other changes in ferry operations and hours along the state’s coast. Another proposal would require tolls for all ferries, including those on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.

White said the ferry changes were among other “huge cuts” in transportation that would adversely affect the lesser populated counties.