The Ferry Tale – Fun, Fascinating… But Is There a Happy Ending?

The Woodbridge supervisor, Frank Principi, showed great leadership in organizing the Ferry Summit this past week. Assembling the speakers, involving the public in the route proving exercise, and orchestrating the conversation for three days demonstrated competency and creativity.

We all know traffic congestion is miserable.  The question is not “do we need to do something” but instead “what’s the right thing to do?”  A ferry is new, different, and intriguing technology.

But what if the ferry turns out to be the wrong solution to our problem?

The Potomac River is a highway.  Since 1608, when John Smith and his crew rowed/sailed a “shallop” to the waterfall just upstream of what is now Georgetown, ships have carried people and cargo between Prince William County and the District of Columbia. 

So it makes sense to consider a ferry as an option to relieve congestion.   In 2000, the last time we studied a ferry between PW County and DC, the Virginia Department of Transportation report noted “Since 1964, five studies and at least five private ferry service providers have examined the feasibility of passenger ferry service on the Potomac River. During the same period, no ferry services have been started.”

Why have all the previous dreams of a ferry foundered?  Other key conclusions in that 2000 report were:
– “Prior attempts to implement a high-speed ferry boat service on the Potomac River have not been successful, primarily for economic reasons.”
– “To attract projected patronage, the ferry service would have to operate at a speed that is competitive with other modes of travel. This speed is not attainable at present due to wake and safety related speed restrictions.”
– “Forecasts based on a regional travel demand model indicate that implementation of the ferry service could shift three-tenths of one percent (0.3%) of SOV users, two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of HOV users, and two percent (2%) of transit users to the ferry service.”

In other words, assuming the environmental and cost issues were somehow solved… a successful ferry would pull passengers off Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes – not out of the single occupancy vehicles (SOV’s) clogging the highway now.   A ferry would not reduce congestion on I-95 for commuters.

The key conclusion in 2000 was “Passenger ferry service evaluated in this study does not appear to be feasible for implementation by the public sector. This conclusion is based on based on estimated costs versus projected revenues from passengers when compared with the same return on existing public sector transportation investments. The service is more costly to operate than other forms of public transportation that receive local, state and federal funding and are currently in service in the same travel corridor.”

It’s not enough for a ferry to be just different, or just a good idea.  Frustrated, stuck-in-traffic commuters need cost-effective transportation solutions that can be sustained for decades.

Here’s the challenge for the current study: Would we get more bang for the $$$ if we took the funding required to start ferry service and invested that money in VRE upgrades?  IF VRE enhancements would provide better/faster/cheaper transportation, why not spend the money on VRE rather than a ferry?


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