Passenger-only ferries to Ocracoke could start next year, but business owners are skeptical of the impact

ferry image by Drew Wilson

A car ferry pulling into Silver Lake harbor in Ocracoke. The passenger ferries are proposed for the Hatteras to Ocracoke route on the north end of the island.

The ride to Ocracoke could get faster by next year with no waiting in long lines in the hot summer sun.

A study recommends the state buy two passenger-only ferries and get them running between Hatteras and Ocracoke by next spring. Currently, only vehicle ferries are offered.

The new, speedy vessels carrying 100 riders each could boost the economy of tiny Ocracoke Island, where the tourism business has fallen by an estimated 25 percent in the past three years. But even after the study was released Wednesday, Ocracoke business owners remained doubtful.

“We’re all kind of skeptical,” said William Canterbury, manager of Zillie’s Island Pantry in Ocracoke. “Sounds great in theory.”

Hotels may not benefit since the passenger service would bring almost exclusively day-trippers, said Jubal Creech, a desk clerk at Blackbeard’s Lodge.

“How much would it actually help us?” he said. “I’m just wondering.”

The new state budget includes $3.6 million to purchase a passenger-only ferry, a major jump-start to the new service.

Riders on the route to Ocracoke have fallen to 815,000 a year from more than a million since the early 2000s. Much of the decline has come in the last three years when shoaling in Hatteras Inlet forced the ferries to a longer route. Now it takes an hour instead of 40 minutes, forcing the number of total daily trips in each direction down to 36 from 53.

Each day the line of vehicles waiting for a ride stretches hundreds long from the docks onto N.C. 12. Many drivers leave after realizing it could take as long as two hours to board a ferry.

Half the respondents to a survey just wanted to return to the old, shorter ferry route. But that channel fills as soon as a dredge clears it out, said Tim Hass, spokesman for the North Carolina Ferry Division. Storms have eroded more than a mile of land from the tip of Hatteras Island, allowing the ocean to push sand into the channel. Dredging can cost $11,000 a day or more.

Under a plan outlined in the study, initial capital costs for the new ferry service would be about $8.35 million the first year, including the purchase of two 100-passenger ferries, construction of parking lots in Hatteras and Ocracoke and establishing a shuttle service in Ocracoke village. The ferries would carry 74,800 passengers a year, the study said.

Riders on the passenger-only ferries would pay $15 for a round-trip ticket to reserve a space. Vehicle ferries are free. A survey showed people would pay for a quicker ride to Ocracoke village without having to wait in line.

Parking could be established next to the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum and near the ferry docks, the study said. In Ocracoke, the study recommends parking at the National Park Service property in the village with a temporary terminal at first. The state would provide shuttle services to parts of the village and to sites outside town, such as the beaches.

Passenger ferries are more efficient for the state budget, according to the study. Cost per passenger comes in at $13 one way on a passenger ferry compared with $28 per passenger on vehicle ferries.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation commissioned Volkert Inc. of Alabama to conduct the feasibility study.

The company considered five options – return to the original route; increase ferry departures on the current, longer route; encourage more walk-on traffic on the vehicle ferries; start a passenger ferry to the south dock; and start a passenger ferry to the Silver Lake dock in Ocracoke village. The study suggested that a passenger ferry to the village would be the most convenient and efficient as well as the least expensive.

This article originally appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.

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