Some still say that bay ferry idea will float

Md., Va. officials, private operator studying options

Tourist traffic eyed

Eastern Shore link to bypass Bay Bridge seen as boon to towns

April 29, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

State transportation planners say a proposed high-speed ferry service to haul commuters across the Chesapeake Bay between the Lower Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland would be prohibitively expensive - costing up to $136 a car for each trip.

But the idea of establishing the bay's first ferry service in decades is anything but dead. Officials in Maryland, and their counterparts in Virginia, are considering mid-bay crossings they believe could provide alternatives for beach-bound tourists, road-weary travelers looking to avoid Interstate 95, and truckers who could halve the time it takes to cross the bay.

Meanwhile, a ferry operator based in Pensacola, Fla., who says he is backed by $50 million in private bond financing, is negotiating to build a system between Crisfield in Somerset County and Reedville in Virginia's Northern Neck - service he says could be extended to Point Lookout in St. Mary's County.

A yearlong study recently completed for the Maryland Department of Transportation found that few prospective commuters in Somerset County, where unemployment is three times the state average, would be willing to make the estimated one-hour trip and back again, even for jobs in Southern Maryland, one of the state's fastest-growing areas.

The report found little evidence that a year-round commuter link, sought for years by state lawmakers on both sides of the bay, would work. But transportation planners believe a Crisfield-to-Point Lookout ferry could siphon as many as 200,000 tourists a year from the Bay Bridge, providing a boost for economically depressed communities like Crisfield, which is about an hour's drive from Ocean City.

"It would be difficult to make a commuter ferry work there, but that doesn't mean ferry service isn't viable on the bay," said Andy Scott, the transportation department's project manager for the ferry study. "We see real potential for capturing some of the tourist traffic bound for the Eastern Shore. The idea of a ferry operating on the bay is a romantic notion that appeals to a lot of people. We need to see if the economic realities work."

Edward von Bergen, who operates a ferry service on Mobile Bay in Alabama and charter ferries in the Virgin Islands, said the key to making the service affordable enough to attract commuters, tourists and truck traffic is the boat - in this case, a fleet of two or three 230-foot catamarans.

The vessels, which cost $36 million apiece, would cross the open bay at 42 knots, carrying up to 400 passengers, 80 cars or an equivalent number of trucks and cutting travel time to a half-hour between Crisfield and Point Lookout, von Bergen said. At that speed, he said, enough people would be interested in using the service that the state's $136 estimate could be cut by at least half, with further discounts for regular commuters.

"Obviously nobody is interested in a two-hour commute to work, but with faster boats, we could cut that tremendously," von Bergen said. "We think it's feasible. We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think we could make money."

In Virginia, officials have been studying a ferry crossing from Northern Neck to Accomack County on the Virginia shore, a route that state's transportation planners think could be as attractive for businesses as for tourists. Privately, however, planners acknowledge that the small-town harbors mentioned as possible ferry terminals are not adequate and that rural back roads would be insufficient to handle ferry traffic.

For his part, von Bergen said Crisfield is the only harbor on the Shore he would consider. It is the only harbor able to accommodate the large ferries, and much of the town's waterfront property is zoned for commercial or industrial uses from the days when seafood processing plants thrived.

Von Bergen, who says he would not seek government grants or subsidies, is interested in an 8-acre site in Crisfield, the former Mrs. Paul's seafood plant. Somerset officials, such as GOP Del. Charles A. McClenahan, prefer another property just north of the Depot, the pier used by passenger ferries and mail boats that serve Smith Island and Tangier Island, Va.

Disappointed because ferry service apparently would do little to improve job opportunities, McClenahan was buoyed at the prospects for boosting the Lower Shore's tourist industry. He said he and Del. John F. Wood Jr., a Democrat from St. Mary's County, plan to ask the state's congressional delegation for grants to help pay for a more detailed study of ferry routes.

C. Frederick Lankford, who runs Lankford-Sysco, a food distribution company near Pocomoke City, has a more direct interest. His company, which supplies restaurants, military bases, hospitals and other institutional customers from New York to South Carolina and overseas, will soon begin serving Annapolis and Southern Maryland. A Crisfield-to-Point Lookout ferry would save time and money.

Von Bergen said he has been warned to expect problems dealing with bureaucracies in two states.

"I'm hoping we all can get on the same page," he said. "It doesn't make sense for all of us to be doing a study. I see a triangle from Reedville to Crisfield and Point Lookout."

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