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The U.S. Department of Transportation has designated the North Carolina Ferry System (NCFS) as a Marine Highway Project, a first for the state, officials said this week.

Issued as part of the Maritime Administration’s (MARAD) America’s Marine Highway Program, the designation allows NCFS to apply for federal funding that can be used to modernize its vessels and improve infrastructure at terminals. 

Marine highways are navigable waterways that can be used as alternate options to traditional transportation methods. The state-run NCFS is the second largest ferry system in the United States, connecting eastern North Carolina to rural communities of the Outer Banks’ barrier islands. The system transports roughly 800,000 vehicles along seven regular routes annually and runs 22 ferries that transport 9,000 trailer trucks a year, officials said. Access to the federal funding will help NCFS meet the region’s transportation needs for both freight and vehicles, according to the U.S. DOT.

“This historic designation will enhance the ability of the North Carolina Ferry System to connect communities and promote economic growth with an efficient, effective, and sustainable water-based transportation option,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a statement announcing the designation.

“This designation will allow us to potentially acquire funding for much-needed projects throughout our system that would otherwise require state assistance,” North Carolina’s Ferry Division Director Harold Thomas said in a separate statement.

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