Proposals would revive Chesapeake ferry service

February 14, 2007|By Nia-Malika Henderson | Nia-Malika Henderson,sun reporter

Fifty-five years ago, the grand Bay Bridge sounded the death knell for the Eastern Shore's fashionable and fast ferry service.

Now two proposals for resurrecting waterway travel have been floated - one to connect Baltimore, Kent Island and Annapolis, and another to connect Baltimore to Rock Hall.

Though both are far from a certainty, the idea is attracting interest as a way to curb traffic on the often congested Bay Bridge, possibly reducing the need for a third bridge, and to reopen the bay as a viable mode of transportation.

Tomorrow, a volunteer committee in Annapolis, made up of city officials, former naval officers, urban planners and ferry enthusiasts, will meet to discuss the concept for the high-speed, passenger-only ferry that would possibly land at the downtown City Dock.

"When people hear about it, they kind of go, `Hmmm ... that's interesting,'" said Craig Purcell, an architect who is heading the exploratory committee. "I think it's one of those things that maybe its time has come. We can't just keep widening roads and building more highways and bridges to solve our transportation problems."

The initial proposal calls for a two-vessel service from downtown Baltimore to Kent Island and then to Annapolis City Dock, with fares ranging from $7 to $12 each way, and a travel time of 20 to 90 minutes, depending on the route.

Ferry commuters would feed into shuttle and bus services in Baltimore and Annapolis.

The group projects that 25,000 passengers a year would take the Baltimore-Eastern Shore route, with 40,000 taking the Eastern Shore-Annapolis leg. The Bay Bridge, which carries about 25 million vehicles a year, would see a 200-vehicles a workday reduction, the proposal estimates.

The cost of a nine-month trial would be about $1.7 million and the group is looking at private and public funding options, with the state taking the lead.

Ideally, the group is looking to do a small-scale test run as early as this spring, and be fully up and running by spring of 2008.

A separate proposal, from the Baltimore-based Maritime Applied Physics Corp., calls for speedier and costlier hovercrafts running between the Inner Harbor and Rock Hall on the Eastern Shore.

While Gov. Martin O'Malley had expressed interest in exploring a comprehensive ferry system in the Eastern Shore during the campaign, his administration has not reviewed either proposal.

"We would be happy to look at any proposal and evaluate its merits," said Jack Cahalan, a spokesman for the state's transportation office. "While it's always a fascinating concept, it is a challenging one economically and one which to date hasn't come to fruition."

There are plenty of reasons that ferry services haven't come about, including cost and convenience.

And in recent years, the record for ferry service has been a spotty one.

The Chesapeake Flyer ran aground in 1990, a week after it started a Rock Hall-to-Baltimore run.

In 1994, the service went under, never attracting the crowds operators expected.

Yet planners note the coming population and job boom in Anne Arundel and Queen Anne's counties as reasons that the market might be ready this time.

Anne Arundel County will see an 8.7 percent population increase by 2010 and have about 532,000 residents, according to a December 2004 Bay Bridge study. Queen Anne's County will see an even bigger boom, with a 19.6 percent increase by 2010 to about 48,500 residents.

That all adds up to a 41 percent increase in bridge traffic, with average weekday vehicles numbering 86,000 - up from about 65,000 now, the study reports.

Jack Broderick, who lives on Kent Island and rode the ferry as a boy, is a member of the advisory group on Bay Bridge traffic issues. He said the ferry would cut down on the gridlock on the island.

And while Purcell imagines commuters aboard a ferry skittering across the water, happily avoiding that gridlock, others still question whether such a mode of transportation is practical.

Paul Foer, a blogger and the former transportation marketing specialist for Annapolis, doubts that there would be enough people commuting by ferry.

He posted a blog entry under the sardonic headline, "Ferry Tales Can Come True, It Can Happen to You ... "

But the waterway transportation idea is one that is becoming more popular, said William Hockberger, a ferry system consultant based in University Park.

There are successful ferries in Washington state and Rhode Island, and a cross-Chesapeake Bay service from Reedsville, Va., to Crisfield is also being considered.

They flourish or fizzle based on convenience and cost, Hockberger said. And if they offer some pizazz, all the better.

"A lot of people want speed and they expect a different experience from a bus or train," he said. "On a ferry, suddenly they expect room to walk, a kiosk for coffee or a croissant in the morning, and a window with a view."

The Annapolis-based plan calls for a bare-bones commuter experience, with a 40- to 50-seat ferry traveling at 35 mph.

"This would be a very mundane type of service; they'll be seats and it would look like a passenger vessel," said Chuck Weikel, a member of the high-speed ferry committee.

Mark Rice, president of Maritime Applied Physics Corp., is buying into the idea of a faster, sexier craft. His firm is working on a design of a 40-knot (45-mph) sleek aluminum-hulled ship that would run 149 passengers from the Inner Harbor to Rock Hall.

Fast or slow, a ferry system would likely tap into the romance of the Maryland of yore.

"I have wished in my heart that we had never given our ferries away once we had the bridge, so I say go for it," Broderick said. "It could work."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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