By: Jon Cawley; DailYpress.com
It has been said that “everything old is new again.” That age-old truism may soon apply to Hampton Roads cross-harbor commuter options.
Alexandria-based Metro Marine Holdings will brief the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization Thursday regarding the potential for a “cross harbor fast ferry system that could serve as an alternate mode of transportation for those commuting between the Peninsula and Southside.”
The company first pitched the idea two years ago.
If the plan to develop a “demonstration project” moves forward, it would mark something of a return to the old days for Hampton Roads commuters. Prior to the 1957 opening of theHampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, ferry service was the only commercial option available to commuters who needed to cross the harbor.
Even in more modern times a ferry connecting the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads has been attempted. HarborLink started a service connecting the downtown areas of Hampton and Norfolk in 1999, but suspended the link in 2002 due to an insufficient ridership base.
“Water isn’t an obstacle. Water can be an advantage if we want to use it,” said state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, Wagner was instrumental in securing $200,000 earlier this year to plan and develop the fast ferry project in coordination with Hampton Roads Transit.
Wagner said he got onboard with the idea after seeing public discord involving new tolls planned for the Midtown and Downtown tunnels. He said he also based his support on 30 years of experience traversing Hampton Roads tunnels twice a day between his Virginia Beach home and Newport News business.
“It’s certainly something we can bring online for a small fraction of the cost of a new bridge-tunnel and offer relief. That makes a lot of sense. But it’s a paradigm shift in the way people think,” Wagner said, adding later of the need to address Hampton Roads’ transportation woes. “If anyone has another way to do it in the short-term, then I’m all ears.”
Wagner said vessels being considered would ferry up to 149 passengers and travel about 35 mph. The state senator also noted several locations — including Craney Island, Fort Monroe, downtown Newport News, Norfolk’s Harbor Park and a plot of land near Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek that is associated with theChesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel — that could support docking facilities.
Wagner said he will introduce the proposal at Thursday’s transportation planning organization meeting and he’s looking for a “buy-in” from the region’s mayors and chairs of boards of supervisors. If that happens, Wagner said he would “fight for funding” in the General Assembly.
‘Very early stages’
In 2010, Metro Marine officials estimated they could draw 1,350 daily commuters and 700 tourists during peak season on boats holding up to 100 passengers. They projected a startup cost of about $40 million including $22 million for the purchase of at least five boats. The company hoped to launch a pilot route in 2012 and move to full service by 2015, according to a Daily Press account at the time.
Thelma Drake, executive director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said funding hasn’t been discussed yet, but public transportation operations are typically covered by fare box revenues, state subsidies and local government contributions.
“We’re a long way off,” she said. “The project is in the “very, very early stages.”
Drake said her agency envisions initial stops at Norfolk’s Harbor Park, Naval Station Norfolk (“an absolutely critical component”), the Newport News shipyard and in Portsmouth. She said the plan faces challenges, including homeland security issues involving base landings, but she is encouraged by Navy interest in exploring the possibility.
“I think it could have an immediate impact and be very successful,” she said. “It takes other investments in public transportation and connects them. You could get on light rail at Newtown Road and go to Harbor Park and get on the ferry and you’ve just missed all the traffic on the HRBT. It’s a real opportunity for people to have transportation choices.”
Aubrey Layne, the Hampton Roads representative on the Commonwealth Transportation Board that allocates funds for statewide transportation projects, said he heard Wagner discuss the proposal at a recent public meeting.
“Anything we can do to relieve congestion in the short term makes a lot of sense,” Layne said. “It sounds to me like a pragmatic step to implement while figuring out how we will fund major transportation projects — I’m all for it.”
In response to a question regarding HRT’s involvement, Ray Amoruso, the transit agency’s chief planning and development officer, said: “HRT is happy to support the study and lend resources to study the benefits of fast ferry.”
Camelia Ravanbakht, deputy director of the transportation planning organization, said: “It’s a mode of transportation that needs to be explored and put into place in the region. Anything that can help us alleviate congestion, we should explore.”