Ocracoke Observer: Ocracoke Express passenger ferry to get underway on Friday

Passengers observe from the upper deck as the Ocracoke Express arrives at the Silver Lake docks in 2019. [NCDOT photo]

Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill Tuesday authorizing funding for passenger ferry service between Hatteras and Ocracoke starting on Friday through the week after Labor Day.

The North Carolina General Assembly on June 25 approved $1,146,179 to lease, pending completion of a successful route verification, a passenger ferry between Hatteras and Ocracoke. Senate Bill 750, introduced by First District Sen. Bob Steinburg (R-Chowan), passed unanimously.

According to a statement from the N.C. Department of Transportation, shared Wednesday by the Albemarle Rural Planning Organization, the Ocracoke Express will begin runs on Friday, July 3.

“We were fortunate enough to receive the funding to get the service up and running for the remainder of the summer season. Service will run through September 10th, the departure times will be the same as last year, and the toll price will be $5 one way and $10 round trip. We also wanted to let you know that we intend to take the necessary measures and precautions in order to protect our passengers and crew from the spread of COVID19. In line with Governor Cooper’s Executive Order 147, we will be requiring all passengers to wear face coverings while on board both inside the seating area and on the deck. We have also implemented a vessel and facility cleaning regiment with crew sign off sheets. In addition we will be marking space out in waiting areas to ensure proper social distancing and will have hand sanitizer at the ticket windows and on board the vessels. In these challenging times we will do our best to deliver the quality service that you all help to create last year.

The bill also includes $6 million for a new heating and air conditioning system and chiller at Elizabeth City State University.

Sixth District Rep. Bobby Hanig (R-Currituck) had introduced the ferry funding amendment in a House subcommittee.

The approval was a bit of a surprise because NCDOT announced on April 28 that it would not be funded this year “due to the impacts of COVID-19.”

Since the ferry is a go, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, NCDOT will need to determine how many passengers it can safely allow on the boat at a time and encourage people to wear masks and remain six feet from people they aren’t traveling with. Last year, this same boat accommodated up to 150 passengers.

In a joint statement, Hanig and Steinburg said, “We are pleased by the passage of the $1.2 million for the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry. Under the best of circumstances, we know that the ferry has been successfully operational. We know that the ferry is critical to Ocracoke as the island has taken a multitude of gut punches, starting with Hurricane Dorian last September. We are hopeful that the operation of the ferry will be a good start to helping Ocracoke heal.”

The free village tram service that ran last summer in conjunction with the passenger ferry is expected to run again, pending funding approval by NCDOT. Face masks will be required on the trams, Joseph Ramunni, who manages the trams, said in a Facebook post.

The Hyde County commissioners at their April 6 meeting approved the purchase of new trams. Last year, the NCDOT had purchased the trams and leased them to Hyde County for $1, said county attorney Franz Holscher. Now, the county will purchase the trams, thanks to a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, but the county and NCDOT will pay equally for the yearly operating costs.

The passenger ferry was introduced in 2019 as a transportation alternative for people traveling between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands with the ferry going directly into Ocracoke village.

Last year, the Ferry Division leased the M/V Martha’s Vineyard ferry from Seastreak Marine out of New Jersey from late May to Labor Day. Reports confirm the same boat as last year will again serve Ocracoke.

More than 28,600 people used it last summer.

With passenger-only ferry in service, the waiting times for the vehicle ferry between the islands were significantly decreased according to Ferry Division statistics, especially by visitors traveling to Ocracoke for day trips.

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About Peter Vankevich 4 Articles
Peter Vankevich is co-publisher of the Ocracoke Observer.