Passenger ferries proposed to link beach to mainland towns

By on March 13, 2018

Didow opening Tuesday’s presentation. (Sam Walker)

A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor is proposing a system of passenger ferries to link towns along the Albemarle Sound with the Outer Banks that he says could annually bring thousands of visitors inland.

Nicholas Didow, marketing professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC, presented his idea to a gathering Tuesday of several dozen local officials and residents at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, touting the economic benefits the ferries could create for the entire region.

“Our conservative estimates are the ferries would carry about 107,000 passengers in the first year, with $14 million in additional tourism spending in the region, and generate 94 or more full-time jobs,” Didow said.

The driving force behind those numbers is engaging the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the Outer Banks to spend one of their vacation days at an inland destination.

He noted that the Albemarle Sound is the largest body of water in the United States that currently does not have a ferry service of some type.

Didow’s proposal would cost an estimated $22 million over a five-year period, with $13.8 million needed initally to get the ferries afloat.

Start-up funds could come through the upcoming round of Golden Leaf Foundation grants, which are sustained from North Carolina’s share of the 1999 settlement between cigarette manufacturers and the federal government, and are set aside for economic development and other initiatives.

Didow was a key figure in helping bring access to high speed internet via fiber optic cable to the service providers in underserved parts of northeast North Carolina through the use of Golden Leaf grant funds.

Other sources of funding, whether private or public, would have to be generated to meet the start-up and operation costs.

His proposal would use five, 49-passenger catamaran-style vessels that are similar in design to the passenger vessel under construction in Swansboro for the state-run Hatteras-Ocracoke route starting this summer.

The smaller size of the Albemarle ferries would make them more easily navigable in the rivers and bays that reach the six destinations on the trio of proposed routes.

Edenton being the only direct link to Kitty Hawk caused the most concern at Tuesday’s forum.

One would be a direct route between Kitty Hawk and Edenton that would take about 1 hour, 45 minutes from dock-to-dock.

The other routes would serve Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Plymouth and Columbia in a clockwise and counter-clockwise direction.

Didow added that having five ferries would make it more feasible to have one available for private charters, functions such as weddings and other events, and also to have a back-up available when vessels need to be taken offline for maintenance.

The service would be available from the beginning of April to the middle of November on Friday through Sunday, then shift to seven days a week from Memorial Day weekend until the end of September.

Fares would run about $20 per person at start-up under Didow’s proposal.

Having Kitty Hawk connected only to Edenton drew several negative comments during a question-and-answer session following Didow’s presentation.

“The initial pairing of Kitty Hawk and Edenton was in part because of the infrastructure already in place, and because Edenton is probably the farthest along of all the communities to welcome visitors in their historic downtown area with restaurants and activities in walking distance,” Didow said.

Kitty Hawk was chosen because it has a private marina in place with fuel and other services necessary to maintain the vessels and is the closest to the rest of the towns.

Manteo and Manns Harbor were mentioned in Didow’s presentation as locations of possible future route expansion, but Manteo was not a viable option at start-up because of the added distance from the Albemarle towns.


But Didow said it is only the initial planning stages for the ferry service, and many options are on the table.

“The good thing about this is we keep thinking about making improvements and modifications and we are certainly open to anything that would make this more successful,” Didow said.

Didow eventually sees the ferries operated as a private entity or a public-private partnership, but added that his model does not use any occupancy tax dollars.

His proposal would create a management authority for the ferry system composed of local government leaders and appointees.

Didow said that could mean the authority itself operates the ferries, or a major ferry company like Hornblower, which runs the New York City ferry system, could run it as a contractor. He also mentioned possibly a partnership with the N.C. Department of Transportation Ferry Division.

Last year, the General Assembly created a N.C. Ferry Authority to manage and operate the previously-private run ferries that service Bald Head Island on the southeast coast.

The General Assembly commissioned an overall study two years ago of the NCDOT Ferry Division operations, spurred in part after the repeated failure of some members’ efforts to require tolls on the currently free routes and significantly raising fares to help recoup operations costs.

“The leaders of that study are very familiar with what we are proposing on the Albemarle Sound,” Didow said.

But he added there have not been substantial conversations about the state managing the proposed Albemarle ferries.

Didow has already presented the proposal at a forum in Edenton and there are plans for forums in the other towns.

“Everywhere we go there are good ideas and good feedback, good things for us to think about and enthusiasm and excitement about making this real,” Didow said.

But he conceded those conversations have not yet taken place with leaders in Dare County, and that not having full cooperation across political boundaries is a risk to success for the ferry service.

Previous attempts at regional initiatives between inland areas and the beach have had limited positive results, whether from perceived rivalries that have never been resolved or differing opinions on matters that affect both sides of the water.

“I’m hoping this can bridge the gap between the Inner Banks and Outer Banks,” Didow said. “It would be mutually beneficial, bringing tourism growth to both sides.”

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  • Co

    What a stupid idea. If connectivity to the mainland is so vital, money would be best spent with building a modern high speed road system (of bridges and causeways) rather than a money pit of a ferry system. Ferries are slow, expensive to operate and maintenance intensive. Furthermore, the recent Ocracoke to Hatteras Ferry fiasco when shifting sands virtually shut down the ferry line should be reason enough not to consider another ferry system.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 7:45 am
  • jackie harris

    One of the main problems with this plan is that there is not local transport system on the OBX, (bus shuttle) It has been tried and found not to be able to pay for itself because of traffic prevents a regular schedule and the number of stops. It would be to far to walk and to bicycle Kitty Hawk road trying to carry your beach gear would be hard to do!. The local weather plays a big part also the way storms pop up would cause a schedule to be disrupted daily.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 8:47 am
  • Edward Teach

    This dude doesn’t live here I can think of 100 ways to spend other peoples money that will increase the standard of living for people in the local area.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 10:03 am
  • Randolph Thomas

    “The driving force behind those numbers is engaging the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the Outer Banks to spend one of their vacation days at an inland destination.”

    I think folks are down here to relax at the beach, not take a nearly 2 hour ferry to a town without worthwhile attractions. If summer beach goers really wanted to see Edenton, they can reach it in about a hour by car from Whalebone. And what exactly would the Outer Banks get in return for facilitating a day’s worth of tourist income to flow inland?

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 10:31 am
  • Richard

    I live here now but as a tourist in the 90’s, the mainland was the last place I wanted to visit while on vacation at the beach. Ocracoke yes, anywhere there wasn’t a beach, no. Enough is never enough is it?

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 12:13 pm
  • Surf123

    It originated from a professor which almost insures it is absurd. If this was a viable business opportunity it would be pursued by someone who has experience in the business world. My fear is that the Tourism Board and/or Dare County will consider blowing money on this insane idea. The real question is what would they do when the get here since there is no way to get anywhere other than walking. One thing to remember with all of these ideas to bring more people here is that it is all about the money and nothing else. The leaders do not care about quality of life or fiscal responsibility or taxation.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 12:21 pm
  • Really?

    Oh boy! This idea is so absurd, I don’t know if I can even add to this ridiculous proposal. Who really thinks tourists are looking to travel back inland? They could stop and spend their vacations inland but they come to the beach for a reason. Did that guy get paid to come up with this?Really??

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 3:21 pm

    I agree this will be tied up in courts so long You or I could see it even being drawn up.. look how long it took for the Bonner Bridge to get replaced… more BS for more BS

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 4:04 pm
  • sortudo

    Does anyone know when decision will be forwarded on the MId Currituck County Bridge? Thanks

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 6:02 pm
  • Carter McKay

    What a ridiculous idea!

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 6:20 pm
  • Islander

    Hatteras Island is the only inhabited island without a car ferry to the mainland. With our current situation of dune distruction from nor’easters and federal regulations preventing beach protection, we need transportation for citizens and essential needs in times of emergency.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 6:28 pm
  • Thinking About the Future

    Agreed. Instead of ferrying people to and fro, how about a viable public transportation system? What about a regular bus/jitney service on the banks themselves? What about public transportation from the airport? These are things that will help the full-time inhabitants as well as the visitors.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 7:12 pm
  • AndyM

    Its hard to get them to drive back over the Wright bridge. Not likely to take a ferry to a place they wouldn’t bother to visit by car.

    Better to spend money to Ferry people and their cars off Hatteras when the road gets closed by the ocean.

    Wednesday, Mar 14 @ 8:53 pm
  • The Captain

    Completely Ridiculous. The study must have been driven by the possibility of Outer Banks Businesses making a few extra dollars. You have to understand the Outer Banks Businesses only care about $$$$$$$. The “Land Magots” have already destroyed the Outer Banks charm of years ago. The Outer Banks was always a “Beach Destination” now it is called “Resort”. I’m sure if some had there way we WOULD see high rise Condo’s. The almighty dollar prevails. I really don’t think the “Flow” will be from the Outer Banks to visit the towns mentioned but really the opposite with occasional day trippers. With all due respect, other than Edenton (quaint small town vibe) and EC (Museum of the Albemarle) the other towns don’t have enough to offer visitors. The mid Outer Banks (KH, KDH and NH) is filled to capacity as far as the Beach goes. The remote idea of bringing more “Beachy” HERE is also a joke. Then as some people say There is No Local Transportation System! I hope people come to their senses.

    Thursday, Mar 15 @ 7:27 am
  • Long time Islander

    Islander, where have you been? We do have an emergency ferry from Hatteras Island. And Looking to the Future, a bus service will not work on the banks because a schedule is impossible to stick to in the summer and not viable in the winter because there are not enough people to use it.

    Thursday, Mar 15 @ 7:35 am
  • chaser

    No offense, but nobody wants to go to inland NC on purpose while on vacation.

    Thursday, Mar 15 @ 8:49 am
  • Woody

    Please consider, that vacationing at OBX started with boats bringing people from these towns you feel, don’t have anything to offer, to OBX,. There were no tourists, other than them. Inland NC tax payers, have paid for roads, bridges, ferries, hurricane and storm cleanup, for the few businesses that benefit from the now 8 million tourists a year. How about giving back some of what you have been given. All the comments wreak of ingratitude. The next time a storm hits OBX, clean it up without help fro the rest of NC

    Thursday, Mar 15 @ 10:29 pm
  • Bud

    obx = obnoxious

    Friday, Mar 16 @ 12:53 pm
  • Tom

    Great idea, We don’t need additional cars on clogged rodes. With Uber and others it would be easy for those who visit by ferry to get around.

    Tuesday, Mar 20 @ 7:26 am