D.C. Plans River Ferry Experiment

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 2, 2005

The District's Department of Transportation has begun considering several proposals for a commuter ferry service on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and hopes to have a vessel on the water by next spring, officials said.

At least four companies have expressed interest in securing the $500,000 contract for an 18-month pilot program that would run a water coach or ferry serving commuters in the mornings and evenings and tourists during the day.

Plans to tap the unrealized potential of the Potomac as a commuter route have been around for decades, but past efforts to get a ferry running have fizzled under financial pressure.

Proponents of the new plan say the time is ripe, as the area's traffic-clogged highways have made it the third-most congested region in the country.

"Our transportation is very difficult to expand, so we're trying to make what we've got more efficient," said John Deatrick, deputy director and chief engineer of the city's transportation agency. "We're supporting more Metro buses and trains, but a water taxi is something that is totally untapped right now. . . . Other cities have shown it does work, and we think it could work here."

The ferry could serve points along the Anacostia River to the Navy Yard then out to the Potomac, stopping by Bolling Air Force Base, the Mall (perhaps near the FDR Memorial) and Washington Harbor in Georgetown, planners said. Suburban docking points could include Old Town Alexandria and the new National Harbor development in Prince George's County.

A ferry dock at the Navy Yard also could serve the new baseball stadium in Southeast Washington, planners said.

A representative of Circle Line Harbor Cruises -- which operates Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries in New York -- opened shop in Alexandria in March 2004, hoping to secure the contract to run the new ferry.

J. Michael Matechak, director of programs for Circle Line, said his group envisions sending a 149-passenger ferry up and down the river at half-hour intervals from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. A round-trip ride would cost from $4 to $6, Matechak said. That cost makes it difficult to compete with Metro, but monthly passes could provide further discounts, he said.

The initial $500,000 would be enough to put one commuter ferryboat in the water for about a year, Matechak estimated.

Though other U.S. cities -- such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle -- have thriving ferry systems for commuters, D.C. has so far seen only feasibility studies, going as far back as 1964. That year, a federally funded study examined linking Fort Washington to District transit.

In 1999, a Virginia Department of Transportation study found that a 45-minute ferry commuter service from Woodbridge to the Navy Yard could work -- at about the cost of a commuter rail trip.

But a $30 million plan by some entrepreneurs called Potomac RiverJet Inc. to operate the ferry foundered after organizers failed to raise enough capital. Financing fell apart after RiverJet lost landing rights at the Pentagon and Navy Yard because of security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to George Lowe, former chief executive of RiverJet. Lowe said he hopes to revive his effort by bidding on the current ferry proposal.

For the District's effort, the biggest challenge will be putting commuters in the seats, said Alan Gray, president of Metromarine Holdings in Alexandria.

That company -- which also hopes to bid on the contract for the starter ferry -- ran a now-defunct Harborlink ferry between Hampton Roads and Norfolk from 1999 to 2002. It failed in part because expected commuter riders did not materialize, Gray said.

"With a single vessel, you can't get the frequency that commuters would want, and unless you've got an extremely untenable situation on your roads, people stay in their cars. It's just a fact of life in this country," Gray said. "We ran market surveys and did research. A lot of people said, 'Yeah, we'd love to take the ferry.' And then the day comes and they don't take it because it's raining."

Deatrick said tourists -- nearly always plentiful in Washington -- will likely carry the boats financially, at least at first. The Department of Transportation hopes to have the ferry provider selected this year and the service running by next spring.

"We'll get smarter as we experiment," Deatrick said. "We think running the prototype of the water taxi is the way to find out."

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