Study: Commuter ferry service viable in Alexandria

Study: Commuter ferry service viable in Alexandria

By Chris Teale (File photo)

Alexandria’s burgeoning ferry options could have some new additions in the coming years, as two commuter ferry routes from the Port City were found to be feasible in a recent study compiled for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.

A total of 26 terminals and 260 different routes on the Potomac River came under examination in the report, which was led by consultants Nelson-Nygaard.

Of those, five were found to be practical, including routes from Alexandria to Southeast and Southwest D.C. and another from the city to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. The other two routes would connect Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to Southeast and Southwest D.C. The study is the third to be conducted since 2000 on the viability of commuter ferry services.

“Early in the study, stakeholder interviews revealed that many people felt a ferry system needed to be part of the total transportation system, that more alternatives are needed to grow the region’s jobs and housing market,” the report said. “The interviews revealed that there are many opportunities, constraints and policy issues that need to be addressed.

“Several waterfront developments (Capitol Riverfront, The Yards, The Wharf, Old Seaport, Potomac Shores, Potomac Yard and many others) are underway. No new river crossings or additional capacity are being planned between the Key Bridge and Nice Bridges (U.S. Route 301), a stretch of nearly 45 miles of riverfront. As the several Potomac River bridges age and reach capacity, alternatives are needed to ensure the region continues to enjoy cross-river mobility.”

The report says the routes from Alexandria to Southeast and Southwest Washington would offer frequent service, with approximately 50 passengers per ferry departing the marina every 15 minutes. The service would operate from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day and riders would be charged between $8 and $10 depending on how service is provided.

Meanwhile, a route from Alexandria to the military base and the Department of Homeland Security would run only at peak times on weekdays, and operate every 15 to 20 minutes. The report notes that a possible fare would be dependent on a number of factors, including the extent to which agencies like the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, DHS and the U.S. Coast Guard would participate in and sponsor the program.

The report looked extensively at using a location adjacent to Jones Point Park under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge as a terminal rather than the marina along the Alexandria waterfront. But that proposal was found to be unrealistic given a number of factors, in particular the likely concerns of neighbors and its designation as a national park by the National Park Service.

Any proposed routes would not be without their problems, most notably the parking spaces required for any commuter ferry services on the waterfront. City transportation director Yon Lambert said parking is perhaps the biggest issue for the city as it weighs any options, given the paucity of space in that area for parking lots or other places for users to leave their cars.

“I think the big concern from the city is that there’s still a lot of unanswered questions with respect to parking and with respect to transportation impact and providing access to where the landings would be at the docks,” Lambert said. “Those are things that are fairly significant for us. [Parking is] one of the problems that we have right now, that we don’t have good answers to those questions at the moment.

“To be fair, the study that the NVRC has completed has been fairly high-level; essentially, they’ve identified the city as a corridor of interest based on some travel-time savings between the city and certain points of interest, particularly employment centers … but when you drill down into some of the specifics, it’s going to take some time and additional analysis and coordination with the community, especially before it progresses much further.”

Charlotte Hall, vice president of the Potomac Riverboat Co., which operates water taxi services from the waterfront to National Harbor, the National Mall and Nationals Park as well as boats for tours, charters and events on the river, said the parking problem is difficult, but not impossible, to solve.

“I think [parking is] where we need to get creative,” Hall said. “Alexandria is filled with entrepreneurs, Alexandria is filled with creatives, and I think it’s also a meeting of the minds. OK, the business community will meet you halfway, but come on city, work with us here. You’ve got to get creative, and you’ve got to be open-minded about some of this stuff. A pilot program would allow us four or five months to try it and find out.”

Another potential problem for the city would be mitigating any possible environmental impacts, while ensuring traffic at the docks is managed as efficiently as possible. Lambert believes the city would work hard to combat those issues.

“Obviously [we’ll need to be] taking a much closer, much more fine-grained look at where those landings and where those docks would be and any improvements that would be required, taking into consideration impacts for the community from access, but also making sure that we’re working with the existing providers to ensure they have the capacity, and ensure we’re not either overburdening their system or creating routes that are ultimately not feasible for them to run,” Lambert said.

“We work closely with [Potomac Riverboat Co.] to make sure that anything that they are doing that’s close to the water, that we’re monitoring it very closely. We try to ensure that, particularly when you’re talking about things like [docking] or loading these vehicles, we’re coordinating with them closely and that we understand the number of vessels that are needed to avoid the logjam.”

The city so far has been supportive of the proposed commuter ferry service, albeit with the caveat that further study is required on parking options and other issues. Lambert said the region-wide initiative will step up a gear at the Fast Ferry Summit in September, and that despite the drawbacks, the ferry proposal holds promise.

“From the perspective of trying to get vehicles off the road, the city is very interested in exploring types of transportation infrastructure that would reduce reliance on single-occupant vehicles,” he said. “Anything that we can do to get vehicles off the George Washington Memorial Parkway or U.S. Route 1 or any of the interstates like I-395 or I-495 to help commuters get to where they need to go.

“The trick with this service, as it is really with any mass transit initiative, is how can you get people to those nodes where people are making transfers and where people are either going from a bike or a bus or a vehicle to the ferry itself. We have to understand how many people would potentially be using the ferry, and then how many people would need to change modes, so to speak, at the location where they would be boarding the ferry.”

Hall suggested a pilot program would allow the city and taxi providers to examine how it works and to combat any kinks in a timeframe of a few months with no long-term commitment.

“I think it’s also a mindset, getting people used to leaving their cars behind or taking the King Street Trolley down to the dock,” she said. “It’s not for everybody, but it is a gradual mindset, so I think the potential is there. I do think one would be wise to do a pilot project so you can iron out the kinks.

“And I think a little bit more thought needs to go into can we get the trolley to operate earlier in the morning. What would it take, what would the costs be to start a trolley earlier so you can get that commuter down to the waterfront taxi. I also think if we do have people coming by car, we have to arrange for parking and deal with that issue, because parking is a great concern here in Old Town. ou need to address all these issues, like what kind of price are people willing to pay to take the water taxi.”