October 4, 2016

Outer Banks visitors and residents will have a faster way to get to Ocracoke Island, thanks to a new passenger-only ferry that the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) plans to introduce as soon as 2018. This announcement comes after a nearly yearlong study focused on how to increase mobility on the popular island. Researchers at ITRE worked alongside engineering consulting firm Volkert to address increasing traffic congestion at the Hatteras Ferry Terminal, which has worsened after recent coastal shoaling.

In the last few years, the duration of the ferry ride between Hatteras Island and Ocracoke Island has increased by 50 percent, reducing the total number of trips that can be made each day from 53 to just 36. The increase in travel time and reduction in ferry trips has been especially challenging because the only existing links between the two islands are vehicle-oriented ferries that has led most travelers to navigate Ocracoke in their cars rather than use on the island’s limited public transportation system. This limited transportation capacity has had a negative economic impact on the area, which depends heavily on tourism.

“Nearly all of the Ocracoke business owners we interviewed cited the ferry wait times as a major challenge to their business,” says Daniel Findley, ITRE’s lead researcher on the project. “They’ve noticed a sharp drop in sales since the route was impacted and many are struggling just to remain profitable. There simply isn’t the same volume of customers making it into the town anymore.”

Because efforts to dredge a channel and return to the previous route have been unsuccessful, the research team investigated other alternatives. In addition to conducting an economic analysis and surveying area residents, business owners, and tourists, the research team examined the travel behavior of potential ferry users during peak tourism times. During the peak hours of the study period, 9% of vehicles abandoned their trip while waiting in line to board the ferry to Ocracoke Island, likely due to long wait times, with an estimated more than 1,200 foregone tourist trips during the peak tourist season. Considering that the average island visitor spends approximately $100 per day, this decrease in traffic would lead to an estimated $370,000 loss in profit during the peak season alone.

The research team found that one of the major reasons for congestion was that the existing vehicle-oriented ferry from Hatteras delivers passengers to the opposite end of the island from Ocracoke Village, the island’s main hub for businesses. The 20-minute commute ferry riders were taking from the dock to the village is a key contributor to the small island’s traffic. As a result, the research team recommended that the NCDOT implement a passenger-only ferry that will deliver passengers directly to Ocracoke Village and reduce the number of cars on the island. Based on study findings, the NCDOT is also identifying new ways to enhance non-vehicle mobility options on the island in preparation for the new ferry. The passenger-only ferry will shave 40 minutes off the previous round-trip travel time required by the vehicle-oriented ferry, with the hope that the quicker commute will improve the experience of Ocracoke visitors and grow the area’s economy.

For more information, view this video: https://youtu.be/6BXdJdb9ihg?list=PLQ2tBMRKXROYZhv-tfMxSDoNuEfNUNXto.