By: Jon Cawley; DailyPress.com
The company behind a plan to introduce fast ferry service to Hampton Roads wants to perform a test run in October and says an introductory route connecting Peninsula and Southside docks could be operating in as little as a year.
But challenges remain that could delay or derail the proposal by Alexandria-based Metro Marine Holdings which has partnered with Norfolk By Boat, a company that provides Hampton Roads Transit’s paddle wheel ferry service between Portsmouth and Norfolk.
A presentation of plan specifics seemed well received by commissioners on the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization — at least in the sense no pointed comments or questions were posed. No action was taken at the meeting.
Metro Marine first pitched their idea two years ago for a series of fast ferry landing points that would connect multiple locations on both sides of the Hampton Roads harbor in order to provide commuters alternative options in an effort to alleviate congestion.
The 2010 proposal failed to gain traction, but it resurfaced this year when state Sen. Frank Wagner, R- Virginia Beach, sponsored a budget amendment that resulted in a $200,000 allocation to the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation to plan and develop a fast ferry demonstration program.
Metro Marine is proposing a “concept proving route” that would connect locations in downtown Hampton and Newport News with Naval Station Norfolk, the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, and other locations in Suffolk and downtown Norfolk.
The company plans to use high speed catamaran-style boats that produce low wake/wash, use low emission diesel fuel and hold up to 149 passengers — a size typically employed in other metropolitan areas such as New York, San Francisco and Seattle.
Information provided by Metro Marine indicated a trip from the Newport News shipyard to Naval Station Norfolk would theoretically take about 17 minutes or 22 minutes from Hampton.
Robert “Bob” Heffley, of Metro Marine Holdings, said a lot of lessons have been learned from the company’s previous foray into Hampton Roads ferry service — HarborLink offered a point to point service linking downtown Norfolk and Hampton from 1999 to 2002. It closed due to a lack of sufficient ridership.
All of the work so far has been theoretical, Heffley said, in advocating for a real world trial in October when a ferry that operates seasonally in Nantucket will pass through Hampton Roads on its way to Florida.
“You never know how it will work until you have an actual vessel on the water,” he said. “Its critical to test in real world sea conditions.”
Commercial marine traffic and pleasure boaters also must be considered in how the service would operate and night operations would be essential for a successful commuter service, Heffley said.
Heffley projected a startup cost of about $40 million, including $22 million for boats during his 2010 pitch.
After Thursday’s meeting he said the company is now looking at a cost of $2 million to $5 million per boat, depending on size. He added that the proposed scope of the service has changed since 2010 and “we haven’t entirely worked out a financial plan for the demonstration route.”
“We are advising now. We haven’t been engaged for the rest yet,” he said. “We’ve learned not to outrun our headlights until we know what the customer wants.”
Heffley said ultimately extent of the service would be scalable depending on market demand. During the meeting, he noted that various federal grants and loans could be used to acquire boats and infrastructure as could loans and guarantees from the newly formed state infrastructure investment bank.
The service “could be deployed rather quickly with the right amount of money,” Heffley said. “I’m hoping the money (allocated earlier this year) is used to apply to the right things soon rather than another intellectual exercise in a study — there have been eight of them. It’s time to do something.”
In introducing the proposal to the transportation planning organization, that is comprised of local, state and federal officials, Wagner noted the region’s growing gridlock and the Navy’s position that further expansion can’t happen without congestion relief.
“It will choke off the community if we don’t provide some kind of relief,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, it is something that can provide relief in one to two years.”
Thelma Drake, the executive director of the rail and public transportation department, said fast ferry service would provide “incredible connectivity for a much smaller cost” than building new highway and bridge-tunnel infrastructure.
Drake added that public meetings would be held on the Peninsula and in South Hampton Roads regarding the fast ferry proposal. She previously said a Navy component is “absolutely critical.”
“We are developing a scope of work. The Navy is studying it,” she said, adding that questions remain. “Can we land on base or very close? Once we land, how would we move people around the base — that’s a challenge as well. It’s very much in the works.”