- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2018

Tourist travel on D.C.-area water taxis has ticked up now that the routes are on the map — Google Maps, that is.

But even in a summer of Metro shutdowns, few commuters are boating to work, water taxi workers say.

“We have seen an increase in ridership,” John Lake, general manager of Potomac Riverboat Co., said during a recent trip from the Wharf in the District to Alexandria, Virginia. “It’s a little bit hard to say — being a service that just started in October — is it because there’s an awareness of the service? Or is that attributable to Google Maps? Or Metro?”

The company’s large yellow water taxis have operated on the Potomac River for 30 years. Last fall, Potomac Riverboat added a route to the newly renovated Wharf and two new catamarans that each hold 149 passengers. Its fleet now consists of eight older catamarans that can carry 122 passengers each and four of the larger vessels.

Riders now can travel to and from The Wharf, the Navy Yard, Georgetown, National Harbor and Alexandria. Google Maps started listing the taxi routes online this summer while Metro was creating severe service interruptions to resolve maintenance issues.

A spokeswoman for Potomac Riverboat and its parent company, Entertainment Cruises, said Friday that 200,000 people rode the taxis last year. She said the company is “on target to significantly improve on that” but declined to provide more ridership figures, citing company policy.

Mr. Lake said the company has its eye on expanding to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Anacostia River, but both would depend on demand.

“I think that people see this as a great alternative way to get to work that’s an alternative to Metro,” he said.

On Thursday, a catamaran’s air-conditioned cabin offered relief from the sweltering heat. The interior also had plenty of space to stretch out, free Wi-Fi and a concession stand. But during a 25-minute morning excursion, a Washington Times reporter was the only passenger for the Wharf-to-Alexandria round trip.

Three crew members from different boats said they usually ferry 80 to 120 people per boat on weekends, but regular morning commuters number only five or six.

“I don’t think a whole lot of residents and commuters are aware of the service. But it’s a desirable alternative to road gridlock,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Thursday.

A round trip on a water taxi between the Wharf and Alexandria costs $18 for an adult. The company offers a $175 annual pass for unlimited trips, which is far less than most commuters’ yearly Metro costs.

“For years, we have promoted multimodal transportation and will continue to do so,” Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg said Thursday. “Not only is the water taxi a pleasant commute, it is also a great way to see the sights and go to events like baseball games.”

Mr. Lake said water taxis capitalize on special events such as Nationals baseball games. The number of “leisure commuters” also has increased since The Anthem performance venue began attracting big-name musicians to the Wharf and the Audi Field soccer stadium opened at Buzzard Point, he said.

Potomac Riverboat sometimes provides offseason operations for special events in winter, such as the Women’s March and President Trump’s inauguration, Mr. Lake said.

Law enforcement and emergency response teams have tapped the company for help evacuating the District in case of a disaster, as New York City ferries did during 9/11, he said.

Local officials also hope marine commuters can help reduce Greater Washington’s traffic, which is poised to worsen as some expect 1 million residents in the District by 2045.

“We’re multimodal, and we encourage all forms of transportation and innovation; otherwise, we’ll just be awash in cars and we won’t be able to move,” said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and chair of the Transportation and the Environment Committee.

Ms. Cheh said water taxis have been “pretty successful” and that she wants to seek ways to increase commuter ridership. “It might be a good thing for us to lend a hand and try to publicize it,” she said Thursday.

In the meantime, proposals are in the works to start a gondola service between Georgetown and Alexandria and a commuter fast ferry between the District and Woodbridge, Virginia. Mr. Mendelson and Ms. Cheh reaffirmed support for both proposals Thursday.

Jerry and Donna Addy of Southern California were visiting the District to celebrate their 30th anniversary and bought water taxi tickets after spotting the boats idling at the Wharf.

“We saw it and thought it looked kind of cool,” said Mr. Addy, who hopped aboard a catamaran with his wife to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

(Correction: John Lake was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of the story. The story has been updated with the correct information.)

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