Commuter ferry service at waterfront floats onward

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Commuter ferry service at waterfront floats onward
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

Despite the objections of Alexandria’s city councilors and staff, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s dream of a commuter ferry service at the city waterfront appears alive and well.

City Councilor Del Pepper, treasurer of the NVRC and a representative of the city on the body alongside City Councilor Willie Bailey, told the rest of council at a meeting on June 14 that the NVRC intends to press forward with studying the use of the Alexandria waterfront as either a stopping point or terminus.

At its May meeting, the NVRC board adopted a resolution approving the submission of a $300,000 proposal by executive director Mark Gibb to apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, which would pay for an environmental impact study and plans for operation and implementation.

Gibb said that while Alexandria is still being examined for viability and will likely be a part of the environmental impact study as with any location, NVRC is also looking to other options.

“Alexandria has not embraced that location, so we’re looking at other sites, quite frankly as of this point,” he said. “And there are a number of others that we think will work, particularly those that involve the military, even the location at the Pentagon over to the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. We’re looking at other sites, but the EIS will help us to determine what will work and what won’t work.”

Pepper said while the plan has many merits, it will not work in Alexandria due to the congestion it likely would bring from commuters dropping off their cars.

“The problem is if Alexandria is either a terminus or a stop-off place, we have a good bit of difficulty because of the fact that it would be stopping at the Potomac end of King Street,” she said. “Our problem is that we just really can’t accommodate the kind of traffic that it would bring forward, as well as the parking that would be absorbed by other jurisdictions. We just don’t have that capacity.”

Last year, a report prepared for the NVRC led by consultants Nelson-Nygaard found five commuter ferry routes to be practical, including routes from Alexandria to South- east 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 was the third of its kind to be conducted since 2000 on the viability of com- muter ferry services, and at the time, councilors wasted little time in expressing their concerns.

“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 infra- structure and add additional vehicular trips to an area with limited parking,” reads a September 2015 letter sent by former Mayor Bill Euille. “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.”

Despite that opposition, the NVRC appears set on pushing ahead with the service, even after Mayor Allison Silberberg, City Manager Mark Jinks and transportation director Yon Lambert met with their counterparts at the NVRC and expressed their reservations.

“I’m puzzled that they still persist on trying to run a ferry through Alexandria against our wishes,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain.

“That is what’s so frustrating, because they just sort of brush over it,” replied Pepper. “It’s sort of like, they get the benefits, we pay the price, and what’s the problem?”

Lambert said the NVRC is examining other routes in this next phase of its study of a commuter ferry service, especially those connecting the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington County with Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. In an interview after the meeting, Lambert said Alexandria’s position on the service is unchanged.

“[The] city does support the use of the river for transportation purposes, but the city continues to have some significant questions about the facilities needed and the modal transfer points for ferry users,” he said. “We’ve made those points to NVRC and to the other regional partners, and I think we still have a lot of those questions.

“That said, if we can get answers to some of those questions, it would help the city be able to better understand what the NVRC’s proposals long-term will be.”

Gibb said that the NVRC intends to address the city’s concerns during the EIS process and come up with some satisfactory conclusions.

“Obviously the city has a lot of concerns, and those are things we have to address,” he said. “They are very concerned about parking, and a lot of those things haven’t been addressed properly and we still need to do that.”

A number of other practical issues might impede the viability of commuter ferry service in Alexandria, most notably a need to change the licenses at the city-owned docks to allow for such a service. Currently, the Potomac Riverboat Company provides water taxi service to National Harbor in Maryland, Nationals Park during baseball season and the National Mall, as well as sightseeing tours and charter cruises.

Jinks said any amendments to those licenses would require council approval, as they do not allow a commuter service to run or dock in Alexandria. But Pepper disagreed, saying that she had heard that the NVRC could proceed without city approval since it has ferries, bought with federal money. In 2014, the Federal Transit Administration awarded NVRC $3.38 million to buy two ferries to move passengers between Alexandria and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling.

Lovain noted that a commuter ferry service would likely require some kind of city subsidy to enable it to be profitable, something Jinks said can vary with the ratio of revenue to cost. But Pepper said Alexandria is very much still in the picture for service.

“This would be the first time I have heard that they didn’t think that we were the best route because it was the shortest and would have the greatest opportunity for people to be using it,” she said. “It would be the most economically profitable.”

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