Ferry across the bay

High threshold: Proposal for car ferry across Chesapeake has appeal but must make economic sense.

May 03, 2000

MARYLAND'S first ferry service began in 1638 as a means to get the colonial lawmakers to St. Mary's City. Nearly 400 years later, legislators again are pushing to re-establish ferry service that would link St. Mary's and Somerset counties. This time, economic development is driving the decision.

At the urging of two delegates -- Charles A. McClenahan, a Somerset County Republican and John F. Wood Jr., a Democrat from St. Mary's -- the state transportation department is examining the feasibility of creating a ferry service between Point Lookout, Maryland's southernmost point, and Crisfield, 30 miles across the Kedges Strait.

Linking these sections of the eastern and western shores has an intuitive appeal. St. Mary's has evolved into a high-tech employment center thanks to the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center. Somerset County, a sleepy agricultural community, has declined over the years. A ferry service could provide Somerset residents with employment opportunities across the bay. In addition, a ferry might attract tourists to Southern Maryland and then channel them into Eastern Shore communities most visitors now bypass.

Judging from a 1994 transportation department study, the cost to riders is likely to be expensive. To operate 250 days a year, the system would require two car ferries. To break even, the study calculated the cost per trip would be about $37 (in 1994 dollars).

If similar ferry fares are any guide, the cost would have to be considerably lower to attract tourists, let alone commuters. The ferry between Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J., now costs $18 to $20 a car, plus $4.50 and $6.50 per passenger, depending on the season. North Carolina's ferry between Ocracoke Island and the mainland begins at $10 a car.

A detailed study is needed. Perhaps with changes in the economy, the high cost in the previous study can be reduced. The state should also pursue available federal funds for ferry construction and operation.

State taxpayers should not be asked for costly subsidies. If the expense is too great, St. Mary's ferry service may remain only a memory.

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