OCRACOKE ISLAND – As North Carolina’s first high-speed passenger ferry is coming together nicely at the shipbuilder’s shop, plans are still evolving for transporting people once they land.
The Ocracoke Express is targeted to be in the water by mid-summer, supplementing service on the state Department of Transportation Ferry Division’s busiest vehicular ferry route between Ocracoke and Hatteras islands. But Hyde County is struggling with the cost of free tram service for passengers disembarking at Silver Lake harbor in Ocracoke Village.
“Transit was never of the belief that they would have to find the funds to operate the tram,” said Bill Rich, the county manager, referring to Hyde’s public transportation shuttle. “It was late in the game when everything switched.”
Rich said that initially the costs for operating the tram and construction of shelters would have been covered by a grant, but somewhere in the planning process those funds disappeared. Since then, he said, the county has come up with a total commitment of $70,000 in occupancy tax revenue to help get the project started for the first two years. Rich said he has requested that the state pick up the remainder of the $150,000 estimated annual cost, but he has not yet received a response.
“Believe me, it was never confrontational,” he said. “Everybody was always working on this together.”
Work to upgrade ferry terminals and docks, a $1.45 million contract awarded to Williamston-based contractor A.R. Chesson Construction, began last week and is expected to be completed in late May. Improvements include construction of passenger shelters, new and upgraded parking lots, tram loading lanes and an additional sewer connection. The floating docks and gangways for the passenger ferry are being bid separately.
The National Park Service, owner of the land, has been a cooperative partner in the $9 million passenger ferry project, including planning for the tram, Rich said.
But he said it took numerous meetings in the last year with the Ocracoke community to tweak the tram service to better meet the needs of businesses and tourists. The vehicles are “like 15-passenger golf carts,” Rich said, that can go up to 15 mph.
Everyone agreed that it made sense to not charge a fee for the tram; there was disagreement over whether it should be available for anyone, including school children, standing at one of the 10 stops to hop on.
After much discussion, Rich said, it was decided that, for safety reasons, the tram should not go down Lighthouse Road, and instead it should drop passengers at the corner to make the short walk to the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The tram should also not plan to go to the beach. And only ferry passengers wearing a wristband would be allowed on the tram.
The eight-stop, 3-mile route, as it’s set now, would travel from the Silver Lake dock through the village and down the highway to Howard’s Pub, where it would make a U-turn and then take a right onto Back Road, stopping at a restaurant, a coffee shop, the library and a gourmet wine and microbrew market. The tram would also make three stops in the village. All the stops are timed to the vehicle traveling at 11 mph and are designed with road pull-offs.
Already, several people are planning to offer additional transportation choices, including bicycle and golf cart rentals and shuttle service to the lifeguard beach and pony pens.
“To me, the only obstacle out there is funding the tram,” Rich said. “The entrepreneurship always comes out on Ocracoke.”
At a meeting of the ferry stakeholders committee in Manteo on Jan. 26, assistant ferry director Jed Dixon showed a photograph of the $4.5 million ferry’s hull under construction by contractor U.S. Workboats, formerly Armstrong Marine, at its shipyard near Swansboro, and presented a time-lapse video of a trial run of a similar ferry taking the 24-mile route through Hatteras Inlet (see below).
Zipping along at about 30 knots – versus the average 10 knots of vehicular ferries – the Ocracoke Express will take about 65 minutes each way. The two-deck aluminum catamaran holds 96 passengers and includes spaces for wheelchairs and bicycles. Currently, fare for a round-trip ticket is proposed at $15.
Dixon said that he and other Ferry Division officials recently visited Bald Head Island to learn more about that passenger ferry system, which is in the process of being transferred from a private operator to a public authority.
Bald Head Island LLC has run the 3-mile route from Southport to Bald Head Island for 34 years. In 2016, the round trip fare was $22.
Dixon, who has been appointed to the new authority, said there are plans to visit Bald Head again on Feb. 15.
Although its vessel is different than the Ocracoke Express, there are numerous similarities that could be of value to the Outer Banks, he said.
“They run a passenger-only ferry,” he said. “They do 300,000 people a year. They have four boats, run two at a time. The business is very seasonal – summer months – and it’s a tourist destination accessible only by ferry.”
Meanwhile, the Ocracoke Express is a little behind schedule, Dixon said, with delivery expected in mid-July rather than early June, as first expected.
Assigning “homework” to the members, Dixon asked them to come back to the next meeting, scheduled for March 23, with a list of things to accomplish.
“Really, the success of this project is going to be determined by what everybody puts into it,” he told the panel. “Look and see how you can contribute.”
Ray Stallings, a longtime visitor who lives in Rocky Mount, said that he has found that many people on the island either don’t know what is planned or are misinformed about the project.
Dixon responded that an important part of the project is getting accurate and updated information to the public so they know what to expect. An online reservation and ticketing system for the passenger ferry service is being developed by IT professionals at N.C. Web Applications.
“I think it’s really, really important that we start out on a good foot,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that things are in place. We’ve got to feel good about what we’re doing.”
In a later interview, Stallings said that he has launched a business, OBX Rentals & Shuttle Services, to take ferry passengers and others to the beach. The “affordable” service is to be available starting on Easter weekend, when he will be living on the island full time.
The shuttle would serve different populations of visitors by transporting them from anywhere on the island to where they want to go on the beach. For instance, the lifeguarded beach is a half-mile from the village and the pony pens are 3 miles away. He will also have beach gear – tents, coolers, games, chairs, umbrellas – available to rent, and provide setup if desired. People could make a reservation on his Facebook page or website or call as needed.
Stallings, who owns a ceramic tile installation business and a travel baseball tournament company, said that even before the passenger ferry became a reality, he was inspired by watching people struggle to take all their beach gear from their vehicles parked along the highway to the beach.
“I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “It’s not fun.”
Tom Pahl, a Hyde County commissioner who represents Ocracoke Island, said that many islanders have come around to giving the passenger ferry its best effort.
“There certainly is skepticism,” he told the committee, “but it absolutely isn’t universal.”
Islanders are concerned about negative effects the passenger ferry could have on the island. For instance, will food and drink served on the ferry snack bar cut down on island restaurant customers?
“The idea is, from our perspective, to promote our businesses and to make that successful,” said Pahl, who has been a full-time island resident for 15 years. “We don’t want to undermine that.”
For that reason, the business community did not want the tram to be seen as a negative in the village. A show of islanders’ support, he said, is the willingness of the businesses to put the occupancy tax revenue into the tram.
When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, he added, Ocracokers know how to rise to a challenge.
“Really, we have a lot of confidence in the entrepreneurial spirit of the people of Ocracoke,” Pahl said. “I think we all recognize that this all is a trial run and there’s going to be a learning curve, and I think we just have to be kind of patient with this process.”
This time-lapse video of a trial ferry run in 2015 follows the route through Hatteras Inlet.