NC lawmakers pony up more money to lease an Ocracoke passenger ferry this summer

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For the third summer in a row, visitors to Ocracoke Island will have the option of taking a passenger-only ferry from Hatteras Island that delivers them to Silver Lake Harbor in the village.

And for the third year in a row, the N.C. Department of Transportation will be leasing a boat for its Ocracoke Express service, while the one it ordered several years ago remains unfinished.

NCDOT is leasing the M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express, a catamaran-style passenger ferry owned by Seastreak Marine of New Jersey. Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law this week that provides $700,000 to lease and operate the boat from Monday, June 21, until Aug. 15, or until the state-owned ferry is ready.

The Ocracoke Express is being built in Hubert, near Swansboro, and is now in the water for testing, said NCDOT spokesman Jamie Kritzer.

“That’s part of the process the builder goes through before turning it over to the Ferry Division,” Kritzer wrote in an email Friday. “Until that happens we won’t know when it will be ready for service.”

The state expected its passenger ferry would be finished in April 2018. When it became clear the boat would not be ready for the 2019 season, the state leased the M/V Martha’s Vineyard Express to take its place.

NCDOT and US Workboats, the company that won the contract to build the ferry, blamed each other for the delays in construction.

In a Wake County courtroom in late 2019, the company’s lawyers accused the state of trying to apply a higher standard of welding than was specified in the contract. An attorney for the state countered that the company was trying to avoid some of the testing required to determine the welds were safe and that some of the tests performed at that point had uncovered “significant problems.”

Kritzer said another company, Waterline Systems, has taken over construction of the ferry.

The Ocracoke Express was conceived as an alternative to the car ferries that run between Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, after shoaling in Hatteras Inlet reduced the number of runs those boats could make each day. The car ferries are free, but there’s often a wait on busy summer days.

The passenger ferry enjoys support in the General Assembly. Last year, when NCDOT scrapped plans to operate the service because of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers reversed the decision, providing $1.1 million to lease and operate the boat even as they cut half a billion dollars in transportation spending elsewhere.

The passenger ferry will make three round trips a day, leaving from Hatteras at 9:30 a.m. and 1 and 4:30 p.m. The crossing takes 65 minutes, about the same as the car ferry, which lands on the north end of the island.

Tickets are $5 each way, and an additional $1 per bicycle. Children 3 and under are free. Reservations can be made online at www.ncferry.org or by calling 800-293-3779. Riders who ask at the terminal or make a reservation by phone can buy one ticket and get one free until the end of June.

The federal government still requires passengers to wear face coverings inside ferries and enclosed terminals, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

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