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|July 3, 2000
High-Speed Ferry for Southern Maryland
Marylanders of a certain age may remember a time when the only way to get to the Eastern Shore -- short of going up and around through Delaware -- was by ferry. In a version of what's old is new again, Maryland transportation officials are looking at a plan to revive ferry service on the Eastern Shore.
The plan would connect Point Lookout in Southern Maryland to Crisfield on the tip of the Eastern Shore.
Proponents of the plan say the time is right. A revival of ferry service could help relieve traffic congestion on the Bay Bridge and bring economic benefits to both sides of the Bay.
One of the biggest impacts is likely to be on tourism. A high-speed ferry service would "boost tourism on both ends," says Del. Charles McClenahan. Ferry service "could spur revitalization of Crisfield's waterfront" and bring economic rewards to the two Maryland communities, he says. McClenahan and Del. John Wood from Southern Maryland are the driving force behind a new $250,000 study by the state to look at the feasibility of a high-speed ferry service for Southern Maryland.
Aside from bringing in more tourist dollars, ferry service could be the answer to employment concerns in both parts of the state, says Woods. Unemployment in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland is only 2.5 percent, making it hard for employers to find workers, whereas unemployment on Maryland's Eastern Shore is in the double digits, leaving many would-be workers without jobs. The proposed ferry service would allow Eastern Shore workers to commute to jobs in St. Mary's by significantly reducing the amount of time to get from one side of the Bay to the other. "Economically I think it's a great thing," says Woods.
"Having a ferry would make it so much easier and better to go out of Saint Mary's and Crisfield and over rather than have to go up and then around," Wood says. For example, the trek from Lexington Park in Southern Maryland to Crisfield would be reduced from a four-hour drive to "a maximum" of an hour's ferry ride.
The ferry service could also help alleviate traffic tangles on the Bay Bridge and allow beachgoers from Southern Maryland and Virginia to bypass congestion on Route 50.
Unlike the slow ferryboats that plied the bay before the Bay Bridge was built in 1952, the proposed ferry service would use high speed catamarans that can carry 200 cars. The ferries, such as the Patricia Olivia II pictured above by Derecktor Shipyards and Maritech Marine Electronics for Argentinean Buquebus, can reach speeds of more than 61 knots .
Andrew Scott, the Maryland Department of Transportation official in charge of the ferry study, says the idea "is very attractive on a number of levels." State planners are aware that the economic boom in St. Mary's County translates into a lot of unfilled jobs at the same time many Eastern Shore residents are scrambling for work. "Part of our mission is connecting people with jobs," he says.
The study's initial focus will be on the feasibility of a ferry operation. MDOT conducted a feasibility study of the same crossing in 1994 and determined that "it really wasn't feasible at that time," he says. The projected fare for the service to break even was $37 for a passenger and car.
Like ferryboats, times change.
The 1994 study said "if there was a significant change in the economic situation, it would be worth taking another look at it," says Scott. "We agree that yes, it's time to take another look." The study will initially look at potential ridership for the ferry. "If it shows this is feasible we would take it to private companies and demonstrate that 'yes they can pull it off,'" he says.
Scott believes it is too early to discuss the state's role in funding the ferry service, but Wood believes the project is worthy of a subsidy from the state. Private industry partnerships and the possibility of federal funding could drop the costs to the state, he says.
While the high-speed ferries can race across the water, they don't come cheap. The estimated cost for one ferry is $20 million; two boats may be required. Other cost issues to be examined include construction of landings for the ferries, and whether existing roadways would need to be upgraded in order to handle the higher volume of traffic. If the state's study finds that the ferry service is feasible, it will then examine the impact on land use and hold public hearings to "see how locals feel about it," says Scott.
Proposed landing sites under consideration are the old Stewart Petroleum barge repair facility in Crisfield and the old St. Mary boat launching area in Point Lookout. The Point Lookout site is located within a state park, something that could raise an eyebrow among environmentalists. "Environment would be a high priority," says Scott. "That would be one concern that we're going to take into account."
For information on the social, economic, and environmental impact of ferry service on other communities, see Ferry Transit Systems for the 21st Century: A Survey of the Social, Economic, and Environmental Influences and Impacts of Ferry Systems, with Specific Illustrative Examples from the San Francisco Bay Area, released in January of this year, the report is available online at the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers linked below.
(photo by Walter Garschagen, photography courtesy of Derecktor Shipyards)
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