Commuter ferry study comes under scrutiny from city councilors

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Commuter ferry study comes under scrutiny from city councilors
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Despite city council’s relatively sedate first legislative meeting after summer recess on September 8, it did not take long for city councilors Paul Smedberg and Del Pepper to let loose on the proposed commuter ferry service from Alexandria and its handling by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission thus far.

NVRC released a study late July outlining the viability of two commuter ferry routes from the waterfront: one to Southeast and Southwest D.C. and another to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security. But the proposal drew the ire of city councilors, who unanimously agreed to send a letter signed by Mayor Bill Euille to Penny Gross, chairman of NVRC, expressing “serious concerns” about the traffic and other infrastructure problems that could be caused by commuter ferry service.

“Based on the current capacity of parking, attempts to integrate a commuter ferry stop or terminus within the city in Old Town would cause considerable challenges to the existing infrastructure and add additional vehicular trips to an area with limited parking,” a draft of the letter reads. “Old Town Alexandria should not serve as the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling’s parking lot because the federal government did not adequately plan for its own parking needs when it expanded its work force on that site.”

On the dais, Smedberg — himself a commissioner of NVRC representing Alexandria — vented his frustration at a process he described as “totally unacceptable.”

“Why should we be the dumping-ground for the majority of these people that are going to be using this ferry, potentially?” he asked, accusing the commission of failing to engage with city councilors and city staff as well as officials at the state level and instead pushing forward with the project.

The issue of the lack of space for parking came to dominate discussion, as Pepper — another NVRC commissioner as well as the organization’s treasurer — first called commuter ferry service a “fascinating idea,” then joined Smedberg in registering her immense displeasure at the project.

“We are not anybody’s parking lot,” she said. “Call it for what it is.”

City Councilor Tim Lovain, who described himself as being a strong advocate of ferry service as chairman of the Public Ferry Coalition, agreed that the parking issue was the biggest stumbling block for any possible Alexandria commuter ferry route.

“I would love to see more ferry service in the Potomac River,” he said. “But these parking problems would be a killer. With some creativity, there can be service to [Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling] from points in Virginia. But Old Town, it’s just not practical.”

Smedberg was unconvinced by the NVRC’s assertion that a large proportion of riders would take public transit to the King Street Metro station and the Alexandria Amtrak station before then taking a shuttle to the waterfront, something he said would never be able to cope with demand.

“People would take shuttle buses to the Metro or [Virginia Railway Express] and then get off at King Street and then there would be a shuttle bus — I mean, come on,” he said. “What, they’re going to make eight stops to get to their final destination?”

In an interview after the meeting, NVRC executive director Mark Gibb denied the assertion that city councilors and staff were not engaged in the process, saying he had a constructive meeting with City Manager Mark Jinks only a few days prior. He did say that he shared councilors’ concerns about parking.

“I think they’re exactly right,” Gibb said. “If this becomes a parking nightmare for them, that won’t work. I get that. It’s not a problem. We need some more study on it. I agree with them, it can’t be a parking lot for commuters going across. If there were a lot of empty spots, yes, that might work, but that’s not the case.”

Gibb said the possibility of a shuttle service to the waterfront from the King Street Metro station could be practical if done properly, especially given how successful ferry service has been in other cities around the world.

“We believe that most people taking a ferry service would be taking public transit to get there, but we don’t know that for a fact, and I know there are some difficulties in getting people there by public transit,” he said. “Ferry operation has worked in some of the busiest cities in the world. It certainly works in New York and other places, but they work because you can get there not necessarily just by parking a car there, but because you can take some
sort of transit alternative and make that work.”

At the meeting, Pepper expressed intense displeasure at the way the process has been carried out so far, and praised the draft letter to NVRC for its candor.

“It doesn’t work for us, and I was very pleased with this letter,” she said. “Whatever other letters get sent out, I hope this strong language is continued.”

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