For more than 70 years, they’ve connected people, places and opportunities.

North Carolina’s ferry system — the nation’s second largest behind the State of Washington — operates under the Department of Transportation, providing a vital link in the state’s transportation network as it moves 1.8 million passengers and 800,000 vehicles each year throughout its routes in eastern North Carolina.

Without it communities separated by wide expanses of water, such as Aurora and Bayview, Currituck and Knotts Island, Cedar Point, Swan Quarter and Ocracoke, would have difficulty maintaining any semblance of normal life causing residents and visitors to drive circuitous routes around inland waterways just to get to family, schools, jobs and recreational activities.

Now local residents and vacationing travelers around the Havelock region who use the Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach ferry will have a new terminal in which to relax and unwind before their short voyage takes them and their vehicle across the Neuse River to Minnesott Beach to continue their journey on N.C. 306.

During a Thursday morning dedication of the $2 million, light and airy 8,900-square foot building housing the public ferry terminal and administrative offices, representatives from the N.C. Department of Transportation, ferry operations staff and local officials listened to brief remarks by state officials the performed a ceremonial ribbon cutting.

“Our system is bright and its challenges are manageable. The future is positive,” said Harold B. Thomas, director of the NCDOT Ferry Division.

Thomas said plans for the new terminal began over eight years ago with construction starting more than 17 months ago. The new building replaces the original cinderblock-styled office, which stood since ferry service began at Cherry Branch in the spring of 1973. The state began operating ferry services in 1947.

Retired ferry captain Alex Moore remembers the building well. Moore attended the ceremony along with his wife and son, David Moore, who is a current ferry captain based at Cherry Branch.

The Moore men represented two of the three generations of Moore men who piloted state ferries with Alex’s father navigating waterways in eastern North Carolina.

“I ferried passengers and cars across Bogue Sound from Cape Carteret to Emerald Isle before the bridge was built. When the bridge opened, I transferred to Cherry Branch and those assets used on Bogue Sound were moved here,” Moore said before slicing the sheet cake after the ribbon cutting.

Thomas said the ferry system has an enormous economic impact on the State of North Carolina.

“Our ferries generate more than $300 million in economic activity each year,” Thomas said. “People look at the ferry system as a beacon of hope and I ask the people of North Carolina to help us achieve that hope.”

Thomas said more than 92 percent of ferry ridership is composed of in-state residents.

The importance of ferry service to barrier island communities was evident during last the recent power outage on Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands in early August. David Howard, chief deputy secretary NCDOT, said of the Outer Banks outage which caused wholesale evacuations: “One shining star was the ferry service. It ran like clockwork getting people off the islands.”

The Cherry Branch-Minnesott Ferry provides 27 daily trips in each direction every day carrying 350,000 passengers and 200,000 vehicles annually. The terminal is staffed with 60 full-time employees and is open year round.

Contact Daily News Reporter Mike McHugh at 910-219-8455 or email at mike.mchugh@jdnews.com.