Wakes Be Damned! The Potomac Needs a High-Speed Ferry!

The Waiheke Island ferry.

Many years ago my mother wearied of living in Washington, D.C., so she traveled to New Zealand to check out a nation that was blessed by natural beauty, governed by English common law, and poised to benefit from China’s economic boom. She happened upon Waiheke Island not far from Auckland, which had been inhabited mainly by hippies, artists and bohemians until that time. What stirred her interest as a real estate investment was the recent commencement of high-speed catamaran service between Waiheke and downtown Auckland, New Zealand’s primary business center. She purchased a little house on the island, and her thinking proved prescient. The catamaran service proved to be a popular mode for commuting, Auckland yuppies flooded the island, Waiheke enjoyed an economic boomlet, and her investment appreciated nicely in value.

When visiting my mother some 20 years ago, by necessity, I rode the Waiheke ferry. The vessel was commodious, and the trip was enjoyable. As a mode of travel, it was comparable to riding a train, and far preferable to driving a car. Ever since, the idea of commuting by ferry made sense to me, and I have always wondered why we don’t see more of it in Virginia.

People have been kicking around the idea of ferries and water taxis on the Potomac River for more than a decade now, but for one reason or another, it never got off the ground. Likewise, people have talked about starting a ferry service in Hampton Roads — perhaps there’s one up and running — but I haven’t heard much about it. Clearly, there are obstacles to establishing such an enterprise, but hope springs eternal, and the idea is getting a new look in Northern Virginia.

Reports the Washington Post:

On Thursday, a 149-seat ferry made a test run from Occoquan Harbour Marina in Prince William to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, replicating the modern ferry experience with free WiFi, charging stations and onboard concessions. For riders, the best feature was the beautiful water scenery, traffic-free.

“Better than the bumper-to-bumper traffic of 95 and 395,” said Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge).

Principi, an enthusiastic backer of ferry service, spearheaded a day-long ferry summit Thursday that brought together more than 300 officials from the public and private sectors to discuss the vision for a system that would carry passengers from as far as Prince William and as near as Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor on the Maryland shore.

Officials say ferry service could be part of the solution to the notorious traffic congestion along the growing Interstate 95 corridor, and a way to take advantage of the Potomac River — or what some call the last unused highway in the Washington region.

A market analysis conducted for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission two years ago concluded that a that a viable market exists for commuter ferry services on the Occoquan, Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Ferries are widely used in New York, Seattle, and San Francisco? So, what’s the hold up in the Washington area?

Apparently, nothing can be done without an environmental impact statement, so Washingtonians are waiting for the results of an impact study. One issue is that high-speed ferries create big wakes — although new ship designs minimize the disturbance. Another is the impact of shore-side infrastructure such as passenger terminals, parking and lighting. Good grief! Surely those problems can be dealt with. In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Let’s get ‘er done!”

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15 responses to “Wakes Be Damned! The Potomac Needs a High-Speed Ferry!

  1. Scandinavia and the Baltic states survive on ferries. I’ve taken them from Helsinki to Stockholm and even a commuter ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. Today, many of the ferries are hyrbrids that run on diesel and lithium ion batteries. Soon, they will be all electric.

  2. Only need, what, about 1500 0f them with 150 seats each to make a dent in the daily commute on I-95? And where is that usual Jim Bacon skepticism on public transportation projects not charging their true cost to the riders, and depending on subsidies instead? 🙂

    • Of course ferries should pay their own way.

      If ferry operators resort to special pleading, I’ll lose my enthusiasm quickly.

      I wonder whether the Scandinavian ferries that Peter mentions are subsidized. Scandinavian countries may be socialist when it comes to taxes and wealth redistribution, but they’re very market oriented when it comes to running their economies.

      • I loved the first time I read “On the Quai At Smyrna” by Hemingway because that is the ferry ride I remember from my childhood, crossing that harbor into (then renamed Izmir) when we lived on a nearby NATO base. Odd how many memories have an olfactory element, but I do remember the smells of that trip (which started on the other side by an abattoir).

        Ferries a solution to congestion in Northern VA or Hampton Roads? Nah.

  3. “A market analysis conducted for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission two years ago concluded that a that a viable market exists”, anybody who trusts anything and particularly a market analysis by those clowns, is either a moron, NVRC Shill or Marty Nohe.

    Might want to check out the NVRC financials, that is if you have the stomach for it.

  4. > Apparently, nothing can be done without an
    > environmental impact statement, so Washingtonians
    > are waiting for the results of an impact study.

    Not necessarily so. The local ferry champion, Supervisor Frank Principi, is hoping to get a categorical exclusion to streamline the environmental analysis process. The I-95 HOT Lanes got a categorical exclusion at one point, so it’s possible.

    Current delays include:
    1) negotiating a lease for a terminal site at Belmont Bay (a discussion that has continued between the proposed private ferry owner and the private landowner for 7 years, so far…)
    2) getting a Federal grant to pay for construction of shore-side infrastructure in Prince William County

    Where to locate shore-based terminals, the size/speed/number of proposed ferry boats (maybe 300-400 passengers, maybe 40knots, maybe three boats…), the number of trips/day, and the schedule for different ferry routes are business-based decisions. They are not being delayed by environmental analyses.

    The proposed ferry operator indicated yesterday that he expects government agencies will fund shore-based facilities. That’s $5 million of taxpayer money. It’s realistic to expect proposals for government subsidies for other capital investment (each ferry could cost $10 million) and operations/maintenance, beyond what Federal employees get for using transit to commute.

    Looking before you leap, or subsidizing yet another tranportation project, is good advice. Environmental analyses are essential steps in a rational development process, if you want your taxpayer dollars to be spent wisely.

  5. Taking a boat to the Washington Nationals or the MGM Casino has been possible for quite some time.


  6. My BS alarm is running like crazy.

    Unless these guys got up and said – “we don’t need a penny of subsidy , we can even make a profit”.. I’d hold on to my wallet instead of being distracted by that phony environment impact argument.

    I LOVE ferries.. I’ve ridden them all the way to Goose Bay, Canada and Vancouver Island on the west but the bottom line is they are money-sucking monsters that are operated only if there is no other option.

    I smell an enormous RAT!

  7. The big discussion with some commuters in the Fredericksburg Area is not Ferries – but HYPERLOOPS! That sort of tells you just how jaded and desperate they are!l We also have those that thing METRO should be extended to Fredericksburg – but the funny thing is their stock answer is that the govt already has too much tax money and if they stop wasting it – there’d be enough to pay for METRO to Fredericksburg!

  8. HRT runs a ferry from Norfolk to Ptown, but it is only for pedestrians. There used to be a ferry from Hampton to Norfolk, but it hasn’t been around as long as I’ve been alive. I have no facts behind this, but I’ll bet the Navy/Port aren’t too keen on ships criss crossing the channel that ships use to enter/exit the James.

  9. This thing is like a zombie from the walking dead.. every few years it re-surfaces again… then gets beat to a pulp when people find out it wants subsidies… then after some period of time it re-emerges from the grave to walk again!

    We have , right now, a perfectly good , but not cheap, commuter rail system from Spotsylvania to DC – and what is really needs to be able to carry more people – quicker – is a 3rd rail that does not have to be shared with CSX freight rail.

    So these ferry folks are now going to essentially compete with the same scarce funds that VRE would.. and any such ferry terminal in the Fredericksburg area would have to be North East of Fredericksburg and require 10-15 mile commutes from many would-be commuters in the Fredericksburg area to get to such a ferry.

    I’m not opposed to the idea and eventual addition of a ferry option – once we do get the Fredericksburg to DC 3rd rail – and station upgrades funded but until then – unless this thing is a true no-subsidies-needed, for-profit venture.. this time we need to drive a stake through it’s heart… to delay any near-term returns from the dead.

  10. The other thing the public does not seem to understand is that every urbanized area in the country now has a Federally-Mandated – MPO – a Metropolitan Policy Organization – whose primary mission is to produce a Fiscally-Constrained Long (and Short) Range Transportation Plan.

    Now what does all that gooblygook mean?

    It means this. You take ALL of the KNOWN funding that will be available for transportation for that region and you allocate it to projects. These projects are developed through a planning process where agreement is reached on what projects become part of the plan and which are left to the side and referred to as “unfunded” projects… essentially “wish’ lists…

    Once projects become formalized in the LRTP – other proposed projects cannot be funded unless projects already in the plan are removed such that the overall funding is the same… in other words.. you cannot have more projects than your funding can support.

    The only other way around this is if new funding is identified and it’s already dedicated to a specific project – then that project – and it’s funding get incorporate into the ‘plan’ or they work to the future funding not yet allocated to specific projects… when the MPO adds future years on a rolling basis to the horizon plan.. typically in 5 year increments… For instance, right now – at 2045 – https://www.mwcog.org/transportation/plans/visualize-2045/
    That lawl/regulation has been in effect for more than 20 years and it’s not getting ‘undone’, if anything, it’s getting even more institutionalized since Virginia has now added Smart Scale which makes every project get “scored” in terms of safety, and bank-for-the-buck as well as a few other metrics…

    So the old wild-wild west way of developers and other folks cooking up “ideas” to be funded -no longer is a viable approach.

    So what the ferry folks are essentially doing is looking for someone to add more money to the process and have that money dedicated to the ferry – on a continuing basis… It’s hard to imagine what govt agency, local, state or feds would do that… VRE and METRO are not about to allow any funding for transit to be used… similarly the Wash DC Metro MPO nor VDOT or DRPT are likely to take money from other projects and re-direct it…

    so the Ferry guys are basically “fishing” for supporters and funding… and have to make the case that this project will actually reduce congestion especially at rush hour.. that’s a tough row to hoe when you’re talking about a relatively small number of people compared to the overall numbers ….

  11. Of course ferries should pay their own way?

    Gee is almost as of the government didn’t subsidize I-95 and I-495 around DC.

    That’s the problem with this blog — there’s always got to be the requisite ass kiss to conversative/libertarian dogma.

    Don the Ripper, Europe has ferries that can carry 1,500 passengers but they would likely be far too big for the Potomac.

  12. Whoops, I meant Steve Haner not Don the R. Also, someone noted that ferries in the Norfolk-Portsmouth area might get in the way of Navy warships. Thinking back to me two or so years covering the Coast Guard while at The Virginian-Pilot, I recall that most major Navy ships go to and from the NorfolkNaval Station which is in the extreme northwest part of Norfolk. Ferries most likely (I think some operate now) would go farther down the Elizabeth River near downtown areas. . There’s not a lot of big Navy ship traffic there and if there is, it usually involves a warship going to a shipyard for repair. If an aircraft carrier is going to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth for work, the Coast Guard shuts down that part of the Elizabeth anyway for a few hours. It is quite a sight to see.

  13. Such a Ferry across the Potomac is long overdue. Apparently its been very difficult on accomplish. A former law partner of my mine worked on trying to get such a Ferry up and running throughout most of the 1990s.

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