If a group of Northern Virginia elected officials and business leaders have their way, many of their constituents could soon be making their way to work on a high-speed ferry system connecting the region via the Potomac River, from as far as Woodbridge to the D.C. waterfront.
On Thursday, a 149-seat ferry made a test run from Occoquan Harbour Marina in Prince William to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, replicating the modern ferry experience with free WiFi, charging stations and onboard concessions. For riders, the best feature was the beautiful water scenery, traffic-free.
"Better than the bumper-to-bumper traffic of 95 and 395," said Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge).
Principi, an enthusiastic backer of ferry service, spearheaded a day-long ferry summit Thursday that brought together more than 300 officials from the public and private sectors to discuss the vision for a system that would carry passengers from as far as Prince William and as near as Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor on the Maryland shore.
Officials say ferry service could be part of the solution to the notorious traffic congestion along the growing Interstate 95 corridor, and a way to take advantage of the Potomac River — or what some call the last unused highway in the Washington region.
A market analysis conducted for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission two years ago found that there is a sustainable market for commuter ferry services on the Occoquan, Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Earlier studies drew similar conclusions about the feasibility of such a system. But as the project moves forward, a new study is underway, focused on potential environmental impacts, shore-side infrastructure needs and the associated costs.
As a more immediate step to increase transportation through the region's waterways, Potomac Riverboat is set to expand its water-taxi services starting next month, adding a stop at the Wharf in the Southwest Waterfront area of the District, to connect the new development to other entertainment and work centers including Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor.
The water-taxi expansion is viewed as a big step toward making travel by water a larger part of the region's commutes. The company, which has three water-taxi vessels serving the region, is adding two boats in October and two next spring. The new boats, each with a capacity of 149 passengers, will run at higher speeds and take riders from the Wharf to Georgetown in under 30 minutes, company officials said.
"We see a tremendous opportunity in the D.C. region," said Carolyn Crafts, vice president of marketing at Entertainment Cruises, which acquired Potomac Riverboat last year. The service serves National Harbor, Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown and Nationals Park, carrying about 350,000 people annually, she said. With the addition of the new stop at the Wharf and the four new boats, company officials project that number will double in the next five years.
Many water-taxi users are tourists, but Crafts said the company anticipates more commuters will begin to take advantage of the option.
"The Potomac River is clearly a central feature that connects the entire metropolitan area. In the future, there is an opportunity to expand," she said.
Ferries carry about 115 million passengers annually nationwide, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and are heavily used in harbor cities such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle. But the concept of a commuter ferry has been largely unexplored in Washington.
At Thursday's summit, regional leaders discussed how to make better use of the river system in the region's overburdened transportation network. Ferry proponents said the idea is to take people upstream, downstream and across the river, potentially cutting commute times in half. A fast-ferry trip from Woodbridge to the District, for example, could potentially be done in under an hour, officials say. This will allow commuters to trade unpredictable road traffic or crowded train cars for cushioned seats, onboard concessions and WiFi.
A ferry from the Occoquan is realistic, officials said, and could happen within the next five years, according to Scott Davies, director of the Office of Marine Highways and Passenger Services, which oversees more than 29,000 nautical miles of navigable waterways.
Moving forward, planners will need to determine the cost of shore-side infrastructure improvements and work with private and public waterfront owners, including the military and National Park Service. Some areas along the rivers have "no wake" zones, in which vessels are required to travel at slower speeds.
But industry experts say new vessels are designed to run at higher speeds, with smaller waves than older models.
Officials are looking at the potential of public-private partnership to operate the service.
Willem Polak, with Potomac Riverboat, said the cost per passenger could be about $30 round-trip given the distance. But that price could be reduced with subsidies and the use of commuter benefits. Principi said the cost would be comparable to, if not cheaper than, commuting via High Occupancy Toll lanes.
(A round-trip Potomac Riverboat water taxi from National Harbor to Alexandria is $16. A VRE trip from Woodbridge to the District is $9.10.)
Polak said a boat that could travel at 40 mph from Woodbridge to the District could cost up to $10 million, with another $5 million in docking improvements.
"The biggest challenge is changing commuters' behavior," Davies said, meaning persuading them to give up their cars.
But, Davies said, such transitions have taken place in other major cities, and even in the Washington region commuters have responded well to change — trying transit when Metro and VRE started.
"Our population is growing. We can't afford to build more roads or rail," Davies said. "The water is free. It just makes sense."
The environmental impact study that is underway and expected to be completed later this year should provide insight about shore-side infrastructure needs, including passenger terminals, parking and lighting. The study, being conducted by Nelson\Nygaard transportation consultants, is being paid for with a $174,000 federal grant.
Prince William is seeking two federal grants to help pay for the shore-side infrastructure, and the region has more than $3 million on hand in grant money that also could be used to pay for infrastructure.
Principi, who has been pushing to bring commuter ferries to Washington's waterways for more than a decade, said that as areas along the Potomac continue to develop, there could be a wider system, accessed by bus, bike or rail, in which commuters would pay with their Metro SmarTrip cards.
"This is something new, innovative, and will help alleviate our traffic problem," he said. "If you have four boats, each holding around 150 people, that is 600 people and 600 cars that you can take off the Interstate 95 in just one trip."