Proposed ferry gets new look by state

Service would boost tourism on both sides of bay, officials say

May 01, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

State transportation planners are considering a high-speed ferry across the Chesapeake Bay from Southern Maryland to the Lower Eastern Shore that would open a new route to ocean beaches, ease clogged roads and boost Somerset County's moribund economy.

The idea is to run high-speed car ferries for commuters and tourists across the Kedges Straits north of Smith Island between Point Lookout and Crisfield. The trip could take about an hour.

Today, the two sides of the lower Chesapeake Bay are separated more by time than distance. "As the crow flies, it's only about 30 miles," said Del. Charles A. McClenahan, a Somerset County Republican who's been pushing the proposal.

Smith Island and Tangier Island, Va., are served by passenger ferries out of Crisfield, Reedville, Va., and Onancock, Va. Ferry service for vehicles pretty much ended with the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952 and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia more than a decade later.

Officials say tourism on both sides of the bay would get a significant boost, especially if ferry service cut travel time for beach-bound vacationers who are now funneled onto U.S. 50 and the Bay Bridge.

"Maybe we can reroute some of the traffic coming out of Virginia and Southern Maryland away from the Bay Bridge, at least during the tourist season," McClenahan said. "Ocean City is only 60 miles from Crisfield."

Marsha Kaiser, the state Department of Transportation's planning and capital program director, said a study of the proposal will take four or five months. The study will include analyses of cost, economic impact and crossing times.

Changing times

The Point Lookout-to-Crisfield ferry was first proposed six years ago by McClenahan and Del. John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's Democrat; it was quickly rejected as too expensive by state transportation officials. But times have changed, the two lawmakers say, especially in booming St. Mary's County.

"We think there's been substantial change in the economy since 1994, and the possibilities for tourism and jobs are worth taking a look at," McClenahan said.

In St. Mary's, officials say the consolidation of the Navy's air systems command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in the mid-1990s has produced a tremendous jolt to the local economy.

Martin Fairclough, St. Mary's economic development director, said the air station outsources 80 percent of its $3.2 billion annual budget to private industry and has been the catalyst for more than 200 technology companies rising in the area.

"We'd like to broaden our economy, and tourism is a key business we think has tremendous potential," he said.

Wood said unemployment numbers are an important indicator of the positive impact ferry service could have, especially if high-speed ferries make commuting possible. St. Mary's unemployment rate is less than 3 percent; Somerset's is more than 12 percent, he said.

`Win-win situation'

"To me, that presents obvious possibilities for employers and a lot of opportunities for potential employees to commute here," Wood said. "It's a win-win situation for both sides of the bay."

Wood and other officials see the ferry as a way to enhance the link between the Patuxent naval facility and an expanding space technology center at Wallops Island, Va.

The former naval base in Virginia, a NASA research missile launch site for almost 50 years, employs 1,400 workers in jobs with the National Weather Service and NASA satellite tracking stations, naval training operations, the Virginia Space Flight Center and companies that work under contract for the various agencies.

If Wallops Island is selected from among 15 sites as one of two national space flight centers for the VentureStar space program, the Lower Shore could experience tremendous growth, says Wayne Woodhams, deputy executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.

"Maryland is an important player in this whole thing," Woodhams said. "If this all comes to fruition, it could generate 4,000 jobs.

"Any further links for the region would be a plus."

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