THERE'S A LOT of gold on “them thar” North Carolina state ferries.

It’s not meant to say the vessels are carrying treasure chests laden with “precious ore.” Rather, the ferries are sporting a good amount of gold paint.

A little-known fact is each of the 22 vessels in the fleet of the North Carolina Ferry System “is affiliated with a college or university within the State of North Carolina and is painted in the respective school’s colors and displays the school logo.”

The dominant school color on the state ferries is gold – 10 of the 22 institutions represented on the ferries have gold in their school colors. (There are also 10 that have white in their school colors, but the ferries are mostly white anyway.)

Perhaps the most colorful ferry in the fleet is Pamlico. It’s partnered with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem (school colors are Bahama blue, apple green & seance purple) – and one would not expect less from a school with a “Fighting Pickle” as its mascot.

North Carolina has 16 state-supported colleges/universities and 15 made the ferries, along with seven private institutions. Odd man out among the public institutions is Fayetteville State University (FSU). No one seems to fess up as to why. It’s not like FSU is the new kid on the block.

The school was established in 1867, as the state’s second state-supported institution of higher learning (after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which was chartered in 1789 and is the nation’s oldest public university).

Perhaps if an additional ferry is ever needed, the NC Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT) Ferry Division will align it with Fayetteville State University and paint it with Bronco blue paint.

Ferry boats aren’t cheap. The newest vessel, Sea Level, had a price tag of nearly $15 million in 2012.

There are all sorts of revenue-related ideas floating around in Raleigh, as always seems to occur when the General Assembly gets together. Ferry tolls are a hot potato. Some legislators want to raise them. Others want to eliminate them. Last year, neither happened. Former Gov. Pat McCrory took credit for putting the “North Carolina Ferry System on a promising course for the future” with a budget that “eliminated the possibility of tolling for the Hatteras, Currituck, Cherry Branch and Pamlico River routes, and created a recurring annual appropriation of $4 million for vessel replacement.”

“The budget also set aside $3.65 million for the purchase of a passenger ferry that will carry pedestrian traffic from Hatteras directly into Ocracoke Village, to help alleviate traffic and summertime congestion on the Hatteras Inlet vehicle ferries. Additionally, there was $2.3 million in there to expand the State Shipyard in Manns Harbor to allow for ferry restoration.”

Time will tell how the ferry system will fare under new Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration, but it is a big operation. The North Carolina Ferry System is the second largest state-run program in the nation. Only Washington state’s is larger.

NCDOT’s Ferry Division operates seven routes and provides employment for more than 400 people. Ferries travel about 1,200 miles each day, and each year the ferries transport nearly 1 million vehicles and more than 2 million passengers across five separate bodies of water – the Currituck and Pamlico sounds and the Cape Fear, Neuse and Pamlico rivers.

Every now and then, the idea of privatizing North Carolina’s ferry service pops up and gets batted around in the General Assembly.

Bills filed in past legislative sessions called for the state to charge for concessions and Internet service on the ferries as well as sell souvenirs and offer advertising/sponsorships on the boats. (There’s a lot more surface area on a ferry boat for NASCAR style logos and decals than on a racecar.)

Other possibilities: Leverage the university/college affiliations by requiring alumni associations to pay their fair share to maintain their affiliations with the ferry boats or open the affiliation privileges up to the highest bidders. (There are more than 40 other private universities, colleges, seminaries and post-secondary schools and institutions in North Carolina that “could qualify” under the state guidelines to be “ferry-eligible.”)

Legislate a revenue-sharing formula for the state to collect a portion of television broadcast fees and/or gate receipts at collegiate athletic events.

North Carolina got into the ferry business in 1947 when it bought out private ferry businesses, so 2017 marks the 70-year anniversary for the state ferry system.

That offers up the perfect occasion for campus tailgating parties and/or big celebrations at the ferry landings. Perish the thought of a booze cruise, however.

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