Officials Conduct Test of Possible Potomac River Ferry Service

The 149-passenger Provincetown III was used for a three-day trial run in May.
The 149-passenger Provincetown III was used for a three-day trial run in May. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another transportation option might be on the horizon for Maryland and Virginia commuters as officials look to take advantage of what some call the last unused highway in the Washington region: the Potomac River.

For three days this week, a 149-seat ferry tested a run from Occoquan Harbour Marina to the D.C. Navy Yard and other points, including Fort Belvoir, Reagan National Airport and Alexandria on the Virginia side and Indian Head and National Harbor on the Maryland shore. The trial also included a downstream trip to Quantico. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) rode the ferry one morning from Occoquan to the District en route to his Capitol Hill office.

Ferries carry about 135 million passengers annually nationwide, according to the Passenger Vessel Association, and are heavily used in harbor cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle. But in modern Washington, aside from some river taxi service, the concept of a commuter ferry has been largely untried.

"This is an exciting opportunity that could take a lot of pressure off the existing roads, which are overcrowded on both sides of the river," said Charles County Commissioner Samuel N. Graves Jr. (D-La Plata). "We just have to make sure it is affordable and dependable."

The Virginia Department of Transportation paid $250,000 for the study from Monday through Wednesday, chartering a ferry from Provincetown, Mass. Ferry proponents said the idea is to take people upstream, downstream and across the river, potentially cutting commute times in half.

If that isn't enough enticement, the boat also allows commuters to trade crammed train cars or unpredictable road traffic for cushioned seats, onboard concessions and wireless Internet access. Tourists might use it, too.

"With Interstate 95 bumper to bumper all day long, there is a need for this," said Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge), who pushed for the study. "We just need to figure out how to get it done."

The study suggests that a trip from Occoquan to the Navy Yard could take about 80 minutes, including 20 to traverse a no-wake zone in the Occoquan River. On Wednesday, however, the one-way trip took almost two hours because of debris in the water.

"With every mode of transportation, you will have some level of uncertainty day to day," said Michael DeRosier, a consultant with Greenhorne and O'Mara, an engineering firm that will analyze the ferry data. DeRosier estimated delays due to river issues would happen about 20 times a year.

Certain segments of a ferry route could become especially popular. The cross-river trip from Indian Head in Charles County to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County took about 15 minutes. About 15,000 Charles County residents travel each day to Northern Virginia, with most commuting well over an hour each way, officials said. In addition, Army officials expect an influx of workers at Fort Belvoir by 2011 because of an expansion of the installation.

"This looks like a promising option that uses an untapped resource," Col. Mark Moffatt, deputy garrison commander at Fort Belvoir, said of the ferry proposal. "We just have to make it so individuals want to do this. We have to make it affordable."

Detailed findings from the study are expected in June. But it was clear after the three-day exercise that a number of issues must be addressed, including cost.

Alexandria City Manager James K. Hartmann said he supports river transportation, citing the success of the water taxi from his city to National Harbor. He said a ferry would need to move people quickly and for a good price.

Principi said ferry fares should be comparable to a ticket on the Virginia Railway Express. A roundtrip VRE ride from Quantico to Union Station costs about $16.

There are no firm cost estimates for running a Potomac ferry, but experts said it would be expensive. Federal and state funding might be available. Other issues include finding the right boat, upgrading river docks, meeting Coast Guard safety requirements and linking ferry service with mass transit.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company