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Northern Va. commuter ferry unlikely to launch any time soon — but there’s still interest

Occoquan has been proposed as a possible starting point for a Northern Virginia commuter ferry (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A proposed commuter ferry system for the Potomac River in Northern Virginia has gained attention from regional officials, but the price tag has dampened enthusiasm.

With budget shortfalls looming and a projected recession ahead, local and state leaders have turned their attention elsewhere, leaving it to the private sector to consider investing in the costly project.

“There’s not a lot of money on the public sector side available to make these substantial investments in equipment and places for the boats to dock,” said Robert Lazaro, executive director for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, which recently received the latest report on the commuter ferry idea. “It’s a doable project, but it’s going to require private sector involvement.”

Since the early 2000s, leaders in Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington metropolitan area have sought alternative transportation options to address ever-growing road congestion and conducted multiple studies. One idea was to operate a ferry along the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland, south of Washington, D.C.

More than 200 people and groups spanning the government, military, higher education and private industry sectors have studied the idea.

The proposal isn’t unprecedented for a public service. Virginia operates three ferry systems, of which the largest is the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry that runs from Jamestown in James City County to Surry County.

In 2018, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which also operates bus system OmniRide, was close to launching a pilot that would run two daily boats on the Potomac, but plans were derailed when the Virginia Department of Transportation and NRVC failed to qualify for a necessary federal grant, InsideNoVa reported last year.

On Sept. 28, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission received the latest report on the commuter ferry proposal from Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.

Cost

Planners outlined four possible routes along which the commuter ferry could operate. Two of the four would originate in Woodbridge, with one route terminating at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling and the other going to Southeast and Southwest Waterfront in Washington, D.C. A third route branded the DC River Circulator would run from Georgetown to Poplar Point, and the fourth would go from Charles County, Maryland to Joint Base Anacostia Bolling.

Project costs for the Virginia route to Joint Base Anacostia Bolling range from $23.5 million to $53.5 million depending on the type of vessel, necessary terminal upgrades and dredging needs. Fare prices are proposed to be $10.

“I think over time some of this will happen, maybe not in my lifetime, because I think it makes a lot of sense, but not for right now,” said NVRC member Libby Garvey at the commission’s September meeting.

Payne said the project will likely be tabled indefinitely until another group takes over.

“There is great hope that there is project leadership who is going to step up and carry this project forward, but how that happens remains to be seen,” Payne said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said he doesn’t understand the need for taxpayer dollars to be spent on multiple ferry studies when train systems such as Virginia Railway Express are offering services between the same areas.

“We have a great high capacity VRE commuter rail line running parallel to the Potomac,” said Schwartz. “Prior to the pandemic, VRE carried over 19,000 riders on its two lines and has plenty of capacity for more riders today — far more than the ferry could ever carry. VRE is transforming to a seven day a week service and planning bidirectional all-day service. This is a far better investment than the ferry and can be combined with economically competitive transit-oriented development.”

Revenue shortfalls, changing travel patterns

Cost isn’t the only deterrent. Projected revenue shortfalls and changes in travel patterns linked to the pandemic also make it unlikely a commuter ferry system will be developed anytime soon.

Metro, which runs the largest bus, rail and train operation in the metropolitan area, is projecting a $750 million shortfall by the summer. The agency has urged policymakers in the commonwealth to consider adjusting a state law that sets a 3% cap on the growth of Virginia’s annual payment to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro.

Legislative staffers recently told the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee that signs are increasingly pointing to the U.S. entering a slowdown or mild recession in the next year.

Economic experts told lawmakers in November to expect a slower economy in 2024, potentially discouraging investments in projects like the ferry.

Increased telework since the COVID-19 pandemic has also reduced the number of commuters on the roads, decreasing the demand for a new transportation system.

“We’ll see what the future unfolds,” said Bob Schneider, executive director for OmniRide and the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

“The momentum has just shifted the energy,” he continued. “So now we have great data, great information. Now what happens with it moving forward will be really just left up to other regional partners.”

This article was reported and written by the Virginia Mercury, and has been reprinted under a Creative Commons license.

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