The greater D.C. region’s dream of a marine highway may be one step closer, thanks to a study that finds there may be a big enough market for commuter ferries.
The Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) presented new evidence Monday in support of a “fast ferry” service between Woodbridge and the District, citing a sizable number of riders who live nearby potential ferry locations.
“One of the questions that’s been asked is, ‘If we build it, will they come?’” said Tim Payne, head of the Seattle-based firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, which conducted the study.
According to his study, about 6,000 Virginians are employed at the Department of Homeland Security and military bases in Southeast or in Southwest who commute from Woodbridge and live within a 30-minute drive of the proposed dock sites.
Mr. Payne said he believes the number is higher because the estimate didn’t include employees at the Wharf in Southwest, which was renovated in October.
“Probably at least 10 percent of them live somewhere in that vicinity of Virginia,” he said.
Mr. Payne broke down the numbers Monday for an audience of about 50 people at the Wharf, which included Andy Litsky, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 6. Up to 4,500 workers could have a shorter commute if they traveled by ferry instead of by car, Mr. Payne said.
The NVRC is part of a coalition of 40 federal and local agencies seeking to run ferries between Woodbridge, National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the Navy Yard in Southeast, the Wharf and Washington Harbour in Northwest. The goal is to connect ferry docks with transportation hubs such as Metrorail and Metrobus lines, as well as the Virginia Railway Express.
“To make this really sustainable, you got to plug-and-play into existing services,” said Frank Prinicipi, who represents Woodbridge on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.
Mr. Principi has pushed for a commuter ferry network on the Potomac River for decades, and refers to himself as “the turtle in that story about the hare” when it comes to hammering out the details. He has helped coordinate three other studies on where to build the docks and what kind of boats to use.
“You know what a study is. It’s what a politician does when they don’t have the money to do what they want to do,” he jokingly told the 50 people at Monday’s meeting.
The cost of a ferry service is uncertain. The working group has yet to decide between running one or two big catamarans, or several boats of different sizes.
Boats capable of ferrying 150 passengers would cost about $2 million. Boats for 400 passengers would cost $10 million or about $5 million to buy secondhand. Operational costs, which would depend on how often the ferries run, would likely cost millions of dollars a year, according to earlier NVRC studies.
Mr. Payne said the public would have to pay for some of the capital costs, at least to build the docks.
That could be a tough sell to a region that recently signed off on a $500 million tax payout to Metro, but Mr. Principi said he isn’t worried.
“Investing in transit is the right thing to do,” he said. “We may need another revenue source and it’s our job to find it.”
The D.C. Council, which included $150 million for Metro in its fiscal 2019 budget, offered support for the ferry idea.
“This gets rid of congestion on Interstate 395 and the gridlock and folks wanting to blow up the bridges because they don’t work for commuting,” said council Chairman Phil Mendelson. “From the District’s perspective, we’re 100 percent behind what’s going on here and working with our regional colleagues.”
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $4 million grant to the NVRC to buy two boats and begin a limited ferrying service. Today four water taxis run between National Harbor, the Wharf, Alexandria and Georgetown operated by a private company, the Potomac Riverboat Co.
Trey Sherard, a biologist who coordinates outreach for Anacostia Riverkeeper, says the conservation group backs the ferry idea.
“The more people on the water, the better for the rivers,” Mr. Sherard said, adding that the “brand spanking new” boats are likely to have a low environmental impact.