Sundae Horn
More meetings, more fun!
More meetings, more fun!

To tram or not to tram.... that is not the question.

Seventeen community members attended this 4th (and final?) meeting of the minds about the proposed tram service on Ocracoke to complement the passenger-only ferries slated to arrive in May 2018.

Official peeps in person were Tom Pahl (county commissioner from Ocracoke), Bill Rich (county manager), Kris Noble (assistant county manager), and Dave Hallac (Cape Hatteras Seashore superintendent) and Boone Vandzura (NPS chief ranger)(both of them incognito in the audience, but there to represent NPS.) Teleconferencing from Swan Quarter were Jed Dixon (acting director of the ferry division) and Beverly Paul (director of Hyde County Transit.)

Early on in the meeting it was made clear that not having trams at all is not under consideration by the planning group.

Call it the "Green Eggs and Tram" approach. You do not like them. So you say. Try them! Try them! And you may. Try them and you may, I say! 

"Trams are part of the package," said county manager Bill Rich about passenger ferry project. "We hope to deliver with the trams in an acceptable way to the community because they are part of the equation."

Bill acknowledged that the private sector could probably handle the demand for ground transportation, but "nobody in the planning group thinks that's the best solution."

Over the course of the past month, three other meetings were convened to present and discuss the tram proposal. The proposal continues to be tweaked to reflect the public comments, but not tossed out completely as some have suggested.

Tram It!

"We know the plan needs to be drastically revised," said commissioner Tom Pahl. "We are open to discussion."

The planning group is open to discussion about the tram routes (they've pretty much been convinced to stick to Hwy. 12 and stay off the side roads), whether or not to go out to the beach (pro: visitors get to see our best feature! cons: the round trip will take longer, the speed limit will have to be lowered out to the day-use area parking lot, and we're not sure that passenger ferry riders will be beachgoers), where the stops will be, how many trams to have running the first year (the operating costs will go down if we choose just one or two in service at a time), whether to charge passengers to ride the trams, the efficacy of a plan to phase in the number of trams and routes over a few years' time, and myriad ways to fund the tram service past 2018.

What is not open for discussion is whether or not to have a tram system at all. 

When asked if the passenger ferry project depended on Ocracoke having a publicly-funded ground transportation system, the answer was "no, but..."

"The grant can only be used for capital purchases in the first year. If we opt out? We're opting out of the opportunity to purchase trams," said Tom.  

Picking up from a question thread from the last meeting, Bill explained that we cannot mothball the trams and wait to use them later. "It's not possible to table them for a year," he explained. It's now or never. If we want the grant cash, we have to use it in the first year, and put the trams we buy into service.

What if the Occupancy Tax Board of five wise and careful souls decides to decline the county's request for operating expenses? (That amount is currently $73,000 this year and $73,000 next year, but is subject to tweaking before the official request is made on April 4th.)

"We're hoping that with this conversation that we're having and our work toward the middle that we're going to be able to make a proposal that the occupancy tax board will accept," Tom said. He also mentioned that both he and commissioner Earl Pugh have agreed not to vote to override the occupancy tax board's recommendation.

So the conversation is not, in the eyes of the planning group, about whether to have trams, but how to have trams. There were a few dissenters from the group who showed their disdain for the proposed tram project – it doesn't have universal support on the island (what does?) – but the discussion was overwhelmingly about the degree to which the residents of Ocracoke are willing to tolerate or even embrace the idea. 

Tom feels that this is a triumph of the community's ability to work through issues and discuss them with civility. Hyde County listened and put skin (a.k.a. $70,000) in the game. The planning group has gone "back to the drawing board" about routes and stops after getting community feedback.

Maybe ours could look like this?
Maybe ours could look like this?

"[This is an] amazing collaboration between the Park Service, ferry division, the NCDOT, Hyde County governement, the community – you don't often see that kind of collaboration, never mind one where this deep into the process all of these organizations are saying, 'Okay let's take a step back, let's revise this plan in order to accommodate the concerns that we're hearing,'" Tom said. "So on the one hand, we hear 'Gee, it seems like you don't have this well planned out' but [on the other hand] you're not going to her in this case that 'Government is so inflexible, they never listen to what you say.' We're making a concerted effort to listen to the concerns that have been expressed over the last month and incorporate those into a revised plan. We had a pretty good plan in place, but we ran it by you all and heard loud and clear there are some problems here that need to be straightened out."

Tom says that he and the other planners have heard from Ocracoke residents who are absolutely against the tram project, and also heard from others who say it's a good idea.

Some of the naysayers were at the meeting. 

"The tram has been pushed on people trying to live here," said lifelong resident Jimmy Jackson. "Local people who live here are the ones who should be considered."  

Janey Jacoby thinks that the planning committee is "selling the American public short in the expectation that everyone has to climb on a vehicle. People need to be able to walk."

Others had questions about schedules and maintenance and possible cost increases and storage that the planners couldn't always answer to the questioner's satisfaction.

"You can follow out every line of questioning until you don't have an answer, and at some point you have to decide that it's worth the risk," Tom said. "That's true of every plan, every business plan I've ever done. I'm very conscious of the fact that $216,000 is a big chunk of money. But we're trying to pare it down, and we're asking over two years. What we're proposing [to take the money over two years] will be less of a hit on other organizations that use occupancy tax funds."

The planning committee believes that the tram system is worth the risk of $146,000 of the community's occupancy tax funds. 

It will probably look like this.
It will probably look like this.

Supporters feel that it's worth trying, may add value to a daytrip to Ocracoke, and could ease congestion along Ocracoke's busy roads.

Other comments of interest from the meeting were:

Routes: The most popular one is from the ferry terminal across from the NPS Visitor Center, out Hwy. 12 and back again. To avoid congestion, the tram will stop only where it can get out of the roadway for loading/unloading. When pressed to name possible stops, Tom listed the Community Square, an area past Ride the Wind, the parking lot at Native Seafood, the Variety Store parking lot, and the sheriff's office. He also mentioned the tram circulating down Back Road on its way back to the terminal, but no one could name a good stopping place on that route. 

Fees: Tom suggested that the trams be ticketed at perhaps $3, with tickets available only at the terminal. That would, he said, decrease demand and raise some revenue for operating expenses. Bill's preferred method is to give all the passenger ferry passengers a wristband that would allow them to ride the trams for free. The fact that the trams won't have the capacity to be to all riders "was very rightfully brought to our attnetion by the brain trust," Tom said, as he gestured to the room.

NPS involvement: "NPS is trying to minimize the impact of the passenger ferry," said Dave Hallac of NPS. "It's an experiment, so we're not making large changes now." Proposed changes on Ocracoke are a rain/sun shelter next to the Visitor Center, a pull-off lane for pick-up that other commercial operators could use, and a modification to the NPS docks to allow the passenger ferry to board its pedestrians.

Visitor Education: All agreed that, as Ocracoke resident Finley Austin put it, "visitors' expectations have to be managed." The riders on the passenger ferries will be a captive audience learning about their destination during the hour-long ride. Information, history, brochures, a TV with video information and the chart plotter showing riders where they are, possibly wi-fi – all these can help visitors know what to expect when they disembark.

Timing: "It's important to communicate that the trams will be on island time," said Tom. Beverly Paul explained that the trams will be in constant motion, about 7-15 minutes between each one. A passenger ferry could deposit as many as 100 pedestrians ready to board a tram that holds 23. "Anywhere you go on vacation involves waiting," she said. "At restaurants, in shops, people are used to waiting in line on vacation." Kris Noble added, "People might wait, they might walk, some will ride a private golf cart to a restarant, rent a golf cart or bike, they won't all be riding the tram."

Funding past 2018: Bill explained that he sees three possible sources of funding: 1. adding tram operating expenses into the transportation budget for the state. "It's the type of funding that's included now, and would be decided through RPO's. It's fundable and will prove itself through sales tax [revenues]," he said. 2. A sales tax increase of .25% for Hyde County. "Thirty counties have done it, and it's an opportunity to create $140,000 for the county," Bill said. Increasing the sales tax would be decided by county referendum. 3. Enact the 2% increase in occupancy tax that Ocracoke is eligible for. "That would be another $300,000 each year. It's a sore subject, I know," Bill said. "But it's available to us." Of that 2% increase, 3/4 of it has to be spent on advertising for Ocracoke, but that "would free up money from the regular 3% to fund other things."

Private enterprise: Former county commissioner Darlene Styron suggested the county try "evaluating the situation for a year to see if the private sector could handle it." Earl Pugh agreed, adding "The first year of the passenger ferry with the tram gives bike and golf cart rentals an idea of the traffic and trends. I'd like to see it all privatized."

As for the passenger ferries that make the tram system a thing, Jed says the ferry division is "finalizing the design of the boats – they're not out to contract yet, but we are on track to start construction in May." It takes 10 months to build these boats, which is, as Tom said, "a tight timeline." 

"I think it's great that you are here and offering your comments," Jed said in his closing remarks. "You are going to determine the success of the project."

To paraphrase another 60's pop-culture icon: All they are saying, is give trams a chance.