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House panel backs ending ferry tolls, light-rail funds cap

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A state House transportation study panel recommended Monday that the North Carolina legislature do away with all ferry tolls and eliminate a recent cap on state funding for light-rail transit projects.

The special committee, suspending its work as the budget-adjustment session begins April 25, also recommended legislation so half of the funding to pave dirt- or gravel-covered secondary roads be distributed equally throughout all 14 Department of Transportation divisions. Currently all of the paving money for these roads, or $12 million, is allocated based on a statewide priority list.

The panel met eight times since December and will meet again after the session ends to likely consider more meaty transportation funding recommendations for 2017. Despite significant funding changes in recent years, the state still faces a gap between anticipated transportation funds and projected expenditures by 2040 in the tens of billions of dollars.

Any recommendations have to be approved by the full House and Senate before they reach Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk.

Since 2011, the Republican-led legislature has gone back and forth over tolling on the state’s seven ferry routes, three of which currently require fees. Generally the Senate favored expanded tolling while the House opposed it. In the most recent arrangement, the legislature directed the Board of Transportation to create new tolls should a regional transportation planning organization covering the ferry route approved a resolution doing so.

This avenue would be closed in draft legislation approved by the committee and also would set aside more than $13.5 million annually in state highway funds to help replace ferry vessels and improve ferry terminals. That’s in addition to about $40 million already spent annually on the system, said Rep. Paul Tine, an unaffiliated lawmaker from Dare County.

Having no tolls is “what’s fair and honest for the people of North Carolina,” said Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, the committee chairman. “They were free arteries of transportation when they were put into place. In my humble opinion, they should remain as free arteries.”

Separate legislation would seek to repeal a provision in last September’s state budget law that would cap state funds for light-rail projects at $500,000. The provision appeared to have put a Durham-Chapel Hill rail project in jeopardy. The House inserted a similar repeal proposal into a tax cleanup bill in the final days of last year’s session and that sits in a Senate committee.

The commission also has been examining funding changes for primary road construction, ports and railroads. But it did not recommend any legislation for the spring session.

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