After decades-long hiatus, ferries could return to bay

Supporters say ships may ease traffic woes

November 17, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

Nearly four decades after ferries all but vanished from the Chesapeake Bay, prospects for restoring a mid-bay crossing appear to be gaining momentum.

Officials in Maryland and Virginia, anxious to boost flagging rural economies and unclog some persistent traffic bottlenecks, are taking a new look at vehicle and passenger service that once provided a vital link for the Eastern Shore.

And they're not alone in thinking the time could be right for resuming a transportation mode dismissed until recently as outdated or prohibitively expensive.

Interest in ferries has been renewed around the country, says David Chapman, a naval architect who is a researcher at the University of Delaware.

"More and more, you see governments looking at ferries as alternatives," says Chapman, who for 13 years was general manager of the ferry linking Cape May, N.J., and Lewes, Del. "The technology has matured, the vessels are more competitive and the federal government has a strong interest in alternatives to fixed crossings. The timing is probably ripe to make this kind of push."

Ferries still carry foot-passengers to Smith and Tangier islands in the bay, and vessels capable of carrying motor vehicles ply the Tred Avon and Wicomico rivers on the Maryland Shore. But regular cross-bay service ended in 1952 in Maryland after the Bay Bridge was built and a dozen years later in Virginia when the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel was completed.

Now, in Maryland, transportation officials have launched a year-long evaluation of types of ferry service and landing sites north and south of the Bay Bridge.

Planners, who concluded in the spring that a proposed $30 million ferry linking Crisfield and Southern Maryland would be too expensive, now say their focus was too narrow, considering only the prospects for commuter service.

The new study, the cost of which has yet to be set, will give them a more complete idea of whether ferry service anywhere on the bay could work, planners say.

"We're taking a step back to look at the whole picture, including Crisfield, and ask the fundamental question of whether ferry service is economically feasible, and if so, where," said Mark Winston, chairman of the Maryland Transportation Commission, a 17-member advisory group. "If it has economic viability, it's a hell of an idea."

In Crisfield, a group of more than 80 business leaders has launched a $75,000 lobbying campaign for a ferry. Such a service, they say, would ease traffic woes on Interstate 95, the Bay Bridge and U.S. 50. They also say a ferry would provide a desperately needed economic boost for the struggling seafood-processing town and the rest of Somerset County, Maryland's poorest.

The Chesapeake Fast Ferry Coalition has hired an Annapolis public relations firm to design a Web site, CD-ROMs and interactive information kiosks to promote its cause. Members hope to persuade state lawmakers to subsidize the service, which could cost $10 million or more annually to operate.

"It's our light rail," said C. Frederick Lankford, the group's chairman. "The department of transportation subsidizes every other kind of mass transportation. The state spends probably $6 billion for transportation over five years. We'd like to get a small portion of that."

The immediate goal, according to Lankford, who operates Lankford-Sysco, a food distribution company that is Somerset's largest employer, is to persuade lawmakers to include the project in the state's six-year consolidated transportation plan. Lankford's firm, which conducts business in Southern Maryland, would be among the ferry's bigger customers.

After one public meeting to explain the ferry proposal to Crisfield residents, coalition members plan a similar session next month in Calvert County.

"We're thinking now about a landing somewhere near the Patuxent Naval Air Station, but we need to demonstrate grass-roots support for this on both sides of the bay if it's going to work," Lankford said. "We need to make it clear that there are economic advantages for the Western Shore, as well as for Crisfield."

Virginia is well into the second phase of a study, costing $260,000 so far, that could create ferry service between Reedville in the Northern Neck region and Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Now searching for an appropriate Shore landing site, Virginia has determined that ferry service between the isolated counties would generate about $6 million a year in tourism. An early study determined the service would be economically feasible with tolls of $10 to $15 for cars and truck tolls of $45 to $65.

Businessman Edward von Bergen, who operates a ferry service on Alabama's Mobile Bay, is moving ahead with his plan for a private high-speed service that he says would allow him to turn a hefty profit hauling beach-bound tourists and truckers looking for a shortcut across the Chesapeake.

Von Bergen said his main interest lies in a service triangle that includes Southern Maryland, Reedville and Crisfield - and he has options to buy property for landing sites in the two towns. But Virginia officials continue to push for service between Reedville and rural Accomack County - which Von Bergen opposes as impractical.

"We're committed to looking at the Virginia shore because there's a need here," said Jim McGowan, a spokesman for the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission. "We're trying to finish what we've started and determine if it's feasible for the Eastern Shore of Virginia."

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