The report, by Seattle-based Nelson Nygaard Consulting, was commissioned by several area jurisdictions, including Prince William, Fairfax, Arlington and Charles counties, and the Potomac Riverboat Co., which operates a fleet of passenger boats out of Alexandria.
“We believe there is a capability to establish commuter ferry operations,” Tim Payne, a principal at the firm, said in an interview this week. “It is unclear at this point whether all the [routes] are totally viable.”
His report is still in draft form and is scheduled to be released Oct. 24. But in a presentation last month to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, Payne advised that short connections among Alexandria, Reagan National Airport, National Harbor and the District are worth pursuing.
The dream of a system of water taxis or ferries has eluded local officials for years. The cost — estimated in 2009 at $30 million for the capital improvements needed for a Woodbridge-to-Washington route and an additional $20 million for a Maryland-to-Virginia crossing — would likely require public investment in docks and connections to bus routes or Metro and dredging of rivers and bays.
Ron Kirby, director of transportation for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said there are significant hurdles to launching a new transportation system at a time when the aging Metrorail system is being rehabilitated and extended.
“We have a lot of other demands on our resources,” Kirby said. “You’d have to struggle to get to the head of the line.”
Kirby, however, said he’s open to the idea of a system of ferries, particularly those that run cross-river rather than long north-south routes, which would have to compete with rail, bus and highway.
Mark Gibb, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, a council of 14 regional governments, said he was skeptical before he started working on the project. But he’s become convinced that ferries could be part of a transportation network.
“It would be small. It would be fledgling. But it may work,” Gibb said. “Based on these studies, it’s a possibility that might become a reality.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation last month designated the Potomac, Anacostia and Occoquan rivers as part of its marine highway program, which could make commercially viable waterway routes eligible for some federal funding.
What has made the idea of river commutes more palatable, Gibb said, is the increasing traffic congestion on area roads and rails and the expected growth of the region. Demographers expect the current population of 5.5 million people to increase to more than 8 million by 2040.