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Residents get a glimpse of a future commuter ferry service for Woodbridge

WOODBRIDGE — About 40 people gathered at Harbor View conference center in Woodbridge at 7 p.m. Thursday for the capstone event of a daylong series of events to discuss the future of a passenger ferry that could, someday, provide commuter service between Prince William County and Washington, D.C.

“We need to use our region’s last unused highway, the Potomac River,” said Prince William Woodbridge District Supervisor Frank Principi, whose long pushed for the creation of a “fast ferry” from Woodbridge to Washington.

Thursday’s Fast Ferry Summit was the second ferry summit Principi has held while in office. The first one was in 2009.

He kicked off the event noting that ferry service was once popular among area plantation owners between 1760 and 1790.

“George Washington built a wooden bridge to get across the river. It washed out. What did they do next? Ferry service,” said Principi.

He then introduced a panel of experts who discussed ferry service operations, challenges, and the likelihood of a new fast ferry in Woodbridge.

‘Like a Rubix cube… there are a lot of challenges on the Potomac’

Capt James Barnberger, with the U.S. Maritime Administration Department of Direct Risk Analysis, said that while there of hundreds of water taxi options in New York City, bringing a commuter ferry to Prince William County will have a unique set of challenges.

“Like a Rubix cube… there are a lot of challenges on the Potomac, but in time you can overcome them. This is not an easy thing to do, I know because I was part of a lot of successful operations in New York, and I was apart of an operation that didn’t make it here on the Potomac River.”

Some of the larger challenges outlined by Barnberger include environmental concerns, getting people to change their commuting habits and abandon their car for a ferry, and cost.

“You need the financial wherewithal. It always takes longer than you think, and it usually costs more than you think, but it if is a good idea you’ll get it done,” Barnberger explained.

He added that boat manufacturers had done much in the past 30 years to address boat wake — waves produced as a boat travels through water — allowing boats to travel at speeds of 30 to 40 knots, about 35 to 46 mph, respectively. High-speed catamaran boats that use jet engines vs. propeller engines are more common these days, he said.

“Twenty knots was a fast boat in the 80s,” said Barnberger.

Additionally, higher speed boats are built with long, narrow hulls to reduce boat wake.

Other challenges include ice on the river, which can slow boats, or prevent boats from operating for at least three weeks during the winter.

“When you have Ice, the Potomac freezes solid, and you’ve got debris like we saw today, you may lose a day [of ferry service] if it gets cold, but even [Virginia Railway Express] stops running on hot days,” said Barnberger.

‘If you don’t have those two ingredients, you don’t have a ferry’

While no one yet knows if the service would be run by a local government or be supported by private business, the panelists agreed that a ferry service if it is operated with government subsidy, should connect with other modes of travel like VRE and Metro. One suggestion from a town hall attendee was to allow ferry passengers to pay using Metro SmarTrip card.

For the ferry to work, you need two terminals: one at the beginning and one at a destination.

“You must have a way to get people on and off the ferry,” said Tim Payne, of Nelson Nygaard Consulting Services, who spoke on the panel. “The definition of a ferry is to pick people or cars up and deliver them to the other side of the water. If you don’t have those two ingredients, you don’t have a ferry.”

Destinations for a commuter ferry include the Southwest Washington, D.C. Waterfront, Downtown Washington, Joint Base Anacostia, and National Harbor in Maryland, home to MGM Grand National Harbor.

In a city built on the river, “Washington, D.C. is turning its face back toward the water. Its roots come from the water, and now it’s turning back. Ferries are a natural evolution of that,” added Payne.

A lack of riverside infrastructure

But in Prince William, the waterfront lacks the infrastructure like docks, gangways to allow people to get on and off boats quickly, and parking lots near the river where ferry commuters can park their cars.

County leaders are exploring federal funding to build the infrastructure through the Federal Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration. The DOT grant will require a 20 percent local match, and it’s unclear if the FTA grant will require a local match. County leaders could know by April if they will win the infrastructure grants.

“We want to start commuter ferry service in the next five years,” said Payne. “we set that deadline because of Frank [Principi], bless his heart, keeps pushing us to bring ferry service here.”

While one of the areas most ripe for commuter ferry service would be Belmont Bay on the Occoquan River in Woodbridge, it’s possible the service could be offered as far south as Quantico.

Passengers would pay about $30 round trip

Williem Pollack, the founder of the Potomac Riverboat Company, is bullish on a commuter ferry for Prince William County. After years of ferrying people from Alexandria across the Potomac River to Washington Nationals games, and to Georgetown, he says his “gut feeling” tells him there is a market for a commuter ferry in Prince William County.

“There’s’ a lot of money in this project,” said Pollack. “Where we are today? We’re trying to determine what the market for this project.”

For a commuter ferry service to be viable, at least three boats need to run within a two-hour timeframe each weekday morning and afternoon. It’s about a two-hour trip on the river from Woodbridge to Washington, D.C.

Commuters could expect to get to and from work in about 45 minutes, aboard a 300-400 passenger boat, cruising about 40 knots, sitting using wifi, and drinking a cocktail, said Pollack. Ferry passengers would pay about $30 roundtrip, and he expects the government to subsidize the majority of the cost.

He’s confident he could get at least $30, as his Potomac Riverboat Company already charges $28 round trip for a water taxi service from Alexandria to Georgetown.

“And that’s without government subsidy,” added Pollack.

With at least three commuter passenger ferries in service and new docking infrastructure on the shore, he estimates the start-up cost at $35 million.

Q and A with attendees

One woman from Woodbridge asked if the ferries would operate similar to a Metro train, serving a series of set stops along the river.

Payne replied and said the ferry would most likely be a direct shot between Woodbridge and its destination in Washington, whether it was the Southwest Waterfront, Downtown, or elsewhere. He also explained it would tack on time to the trip if the ferry had to make a morning stop at a place like National Harbor.

“If ferry stopped at National Harbor, the approach to National Harbor is not ideal…it is a narrow channel. When leaving, the boat would go south, then hook north toward the Wilson Bridge, and that would add 25 to 30 minutes to the commute,” said Payne.

Another person asked if the ferry would carry cars? “We’ve not looked at carrying autos. Last time autos were carried across Potomac River was in the 1930s,” Payne replied. 

Another person asked “beyond the savings of time, are these ferries going to serve places not served by VRE or other transit?

“It would take about the same time to travel from Woodbridge to the Southwest Waterfront on a ferry as it would on VRE,” added Payne. “We hope everyone doesn’t want to take the ferry if so we’ll have our hands full,” he added. “I wouldn’t expect everyone to take it every day.”

A Woodbridge resident asked who works at the Navy Yard in Washington asked local leaders to work with Congress to increase the federal transit subsidy, raising it above $255 a month, as a potential way to draw more people to a commuter ferry.

A woman who said she didn’t commute to Washington for work but said she would like to use a ferry to take her children to Washington to sightsee. “It’s important for me to know if I can take my kids on the weekend,” she asked.

Pollack replied, “yes, but it’s a different market. Instead of leaving in the early morning, the boat would most likely have a 10 a.m. start time and a 7 p.m. return time.”

The cost of child’s ticket would most likely be 50 percent less than what an adult paid to ride, with children under 2 years old riding free.

Another man asked “Do you need icebreakers in the winter?

“You have about three weeks of ice on the Potomac, and when the river ices up, the water doesn’t flow very quickly by Potomac Shores [housing development near Dumfries] where the river bends, and the ice builds up significantly,” said Pollack “You would have to go slower for 21 days due to ice flows, and we would work with partners to provide bus service.”

‘While I appreciate your calls and emails about this, I don’t need them’

Principi closed his ferry summit with a question.

“Where do we go from here? I’m not sure I have a concrete answer to where we’re going to from here. I do know we’re keeping this coalition together, and we’ll keep working with [Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission — providers of OmniRide and OmniLink bus service] which is transforming itself as a bus-only, to a bus and “other” organization. We have a feeling it will chase the fast ferry discretionary grant.”

“While I appreciate your calls and emails about this, I don’t need them. I’ve already bought in. Tomorrow, you need to think if this is a good idea for you and your family and call members of the Board of County Supervisors, your state legislators, and ask them to get on board.”

He also said, much like the county did by funding the current Route 1 construction improvements one segment at a time, the effort to bring a ferry to Woodbridge should start small, progress slowly in order to build a market for ferry service.

“Nobody is going to write a check, no one is going to bring a fleet of boats here tomorrow,’ he said.

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