Bay Ferry Plotted to Ease Car Commute

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 8, 2007

After watching more and more traffic snarls on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, some local citizens are trying to figure out how to bring ferries back to town. High-speed vessels, they believe, could be an easy, environmentally friendly answer to the region's road woes.

And so, for more than a month, residents have gathered for informal meetings in a dimly lighted upstairs room of an old Annapolis bar. They have hashed out plans for shuttle service between Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Baltimore, and perhaps Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

The ferries could be an alternative to building a third span of the Bay Bridge, members of the ad hoc committee say. They also believe ferries could ease congestion, while appeasing many Eastern Shore residents, who fear that expanding the bridge would unleash rampant growth and destroy the rural nature of their communities.

According to state figures, about 26 million vehicles crossed the Bay Bridge in 2005. Every day, more than 11,000 people commute from the Eastern Shore to the Western Shore. As growth on both sides of the bridge has increased, so has the traffic. And with even more growth projected, especially on the Eastern Shore, locals fear the bridge will be strained way beyond capacity.

That's where the High-Speed Ferry committee comes in. The group latched on to the ferry idea, which Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) mentioned on the campaign trail. When O'Malley won, a few hardcore believers formed the committee with help from staff from the City of Annapolis.

"We said, well, let's go ahead and give it a try and see if there's any possibility to it," said Craig Purcell, a local architect chairing the committee. "I think right now everyone's sitting in traffic thinking, 'Hmm, when is this going to get resolved?' "

The committee is loosely composed of staff from the city planning office, retired naval designers, retired civil engineers and consultants. The group has no official power, but in three meetings, members have put together a proposal, including cost estimates and possible ferry fares.

For decades Annapolis and the Eastern Shore were connected by ferries, but the construction of the Bay Bridge in the 1950s eventually led to their demise. The committe is now considering high-speed hydrofoil boats, which might provide the speed needed to convince commuters that riding would be better than driving. The ship would carry passengers only, not cars, across the Chesapeake Bay, and the group is exploring possibilities for parking, flexcars and feeder buses on both sides.

Mark Rice, president of Maritime Applied Physics Corp., which is working with the group, has proposed a 90-foot-long ferryboat capable of carrying 149 passengers at a high speed of 40 knots. The committee estimates a roundtrip journey from Annapolis to Kent Island would take about 46 minutes.

For service between Annapolis and Kent Island, the group believes it could charge $5 each way, and offer six round trips a day. For service between Annapolis and Baltimore, the fare might be $12 each way, with three round trips a day. As long as the boat manages to fill about 40 percent of its available load, both routes could be profit making ventures, according to a group report.

During their most recent meeting last week at Riordan's bar at the city dock, about 20 people showed up, including a representative from the office of Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes (D). The next step will be to generate interest from local leaders and get state and federal funding for futher planning and to buy boats and establish a base for operations.

"It's clearly an issue of political will," said Purcell. "We're a citizens group, so we're feeling our way around right now, eventually we need state and federal funding for expertise to really get this off the ground."

He and others are trying to line up meetings with local officials in coming weeks, and their next big step is a sea trial in a borrowed boat to see whether the routes and timetables they've planned would really work.

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