Another Transportation Alternative: Water Ferries

I’ve been harping on the theme that there are abundant alternatives to the tax-and-build approach to solving Virginia’s traffic congestion woes. No one alternative constitutes a silver bullet. But maybe 10, 20 or 30 small alternatives, each serving a distinct niche, could add up to a system-wide solution. The latest idea, which may or may not be financially practicable, comes from the District of Columbia: Water ferries.

According to today’s Washington Post, “D.C. Plans River Ferry Experiment,” our neighbors across the Potomac River are exploring plans to put a ferry service into effect by next year for destinations on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Writes the Post: “At least four companies have expressed interest in securing the $500,000 contract for an 18-month pilot program that would run a water coach or ferry serving commuters in the mornings and evenings and tourists during the day.”

The obvious advantage of a ferry service: It does not require building roads or building rail lines, just ferry docks. It’s encouraging that other cities — New York, San Francisco, Seattle — operate what the Post describes as “thriving” ferry systems for commuters. So do cities in other parts of the world. Why doesn’t Virginia? The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries offer miles and miles of nearly cost-free right of way.

A 1999 Virginia Department of Transportation study concluded that a commuter service from Woodbridge to the Navy Yard in D.C. would cost about as much as a commuter rail trip. Unofrtunately, that’s not much of an endorsement — commuter rail, to my way of thinking, is not always a good investment of public dollars. To be a viable alternative for Virginia, ferries would have to provide a better financial pay-off than that. We’re going to need some creative thinking if the ferry idea is to prove feasible.

I’m thinking of writing a column on this topic for the next edition of the Bacon’s Rebellion e-zine. Any observations on the “water ferry” transportation alternative, and how a ferry service could be made financially viable, would be most welcome.

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  1. great state Avatar
    great state

    While ferries are an interesting topic and could provide some relief for areas directly adjacent to the District of Columbia, I wonder how much of an impact they would have with the current situation in the Northern Virginia area.

    First, I see the ferries as having a similar problem as Metro: how are the people who are riding the ferries going to get to the docks? There likely won’t be parking (or perhaps not enough parking) at these areas, which is a frequent complaint at many metro stations. Most commuters don’t live near Metro stations, let alone near the water in Alexandria or elsewhere. For people in many areas of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, etc., I don’t see how this is much of an option.

    Second, this manner of commute is a possibility for those that work in DC, but what about the high-tech businesses located in Northern Virginia? Ferries certainly can’t be seen as a benefit for them.

    The comparison with NY, San Francisico, etc. is understandable, but certainly the Northern Virginia area does not have the natural harbors that these areas have. I could see this being of use in the Hampton Roads area, though.

  2. I guess ferries could make a tiny dent. Plus they could provide tourists with a good view of Mt. Vernon and other cool riverside spots (Georgetown comes to mind).

    You know what would make a huge dent in education? Jerry Kilgore’s promise to fund the SOQs! He’ll get that VEA endorsement any day now.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The water ferry idea has been around for thirty years. In fact, I did some preliminary research on the idea in 1975, and the idea has surfaced in the news at least twice since then.

    The Potomac is the best highway leading to the city, not crowded and no potholes, and very little maintenance.

    It has a number of problems, however. Ideally you would like a high speed service which can be obtained four ways: hydrofoils, hovercraft, surface piercing catamarans, or very long and narrow vessels.

    Hydrofoils need deep water and special piers, and the foils are subject to damage from debris such as logs. Much of the Potomac is now basically mud flats. Most likely places to install piers (of any type) would need dredging, piers, highway access, and parking.

    Hovercraft are fast, noisy and energy costly, however, they are not affected by ice or debris. Surface piercing cats might be a good idea, but they are tall and probably precluded by low bridges across the Potomac. Both the hydrofoils and surface piercing cats throw a substantial wake.

    That leaves you with low barge-like structures such as the currently operating Dandy. A very long, narrow hull similar to a rowing scull, constructed out of light weight composites could make decent speed on the river without making much wake. Wake damages the shoreline and boats docked at marinas, large wakes can be dangerous to small pleasurecraft.

    Alexandria has a speed limit in effect, but it might be possible to negotiate an agreement based on a very low wake boat. The board of directors at Mt. Vernon would probably have to be reckoned with as well.

    A craft 150 ft long with four abreast seating like a bus might have 50 rows of seats for a capacity of 200. It should be able to run at 20 knots with modest power, and little wake. It might run faster on the open reaches of the river and slower in the congested areas. The approach to Woodbridge is long, narrow, and shallow, plus congested so it is a slow go.

    Such a craft might have to be hinged in the middle so it could fold up for docking and unload faster, but other ways of approaching the problem are possible. To my knowlege no such vessel exists, and getting it past the Coast Guard might be a chore.

    Still, a 20 mile trip will take over an hour. Hovercraft could go twice that speed. A hovercraft could climb right up the beach and “dock” in the parking lot.

    The main problem with any transit system is frequency. If you can’t show up at least every hour over a four hour period in the morning and in the evening, then you are out of business. Consider the recent story on the bus from Front Royal. It is a once a day trip and was only attracting five passengers. Maryland had a very inexpensive, subsidized commuter air service to Cumberland that failed because it didn’t offer enough frequency. One thing about cars is that they have a frequency of 100% because it is always there when you need it.

    Because of the duration of the trip, frequency requirements imply you need several boats, assuming you can get the required market share.

    Woodbridge might be too close, and to far away at the same time. It might be that much smaller craft operating more frequently from Alexandria would make more sense. They would have to compete with the subway, but if they offer an experience that is halfway civilized, that shouldn’t be too hard.

    On the other hand a longer trip from say Dahlgren or Piney Point would offer riders a bigger benefit in terms of avoiding having to drive a car. Those trips would need very high speed service.

    If an hour long trip is priced at $7.00 you might have per trip revenue of $1200, and you have to come back empty for the next load.

    Any way you look at this, I think I came to the conclusion that you would have to view it like the Metro. It is not an economical service, but an amenity, mostly paid for by those that don’t use it.

  4. Ray – that’s a damn good assessment of ferries. Thanks.

    One thing though – the problem I have with your transportation arguments and the arguments I often make (generally summarized as: “we’re screwed! What can we really do?”) is that there ARE large urban areas that have successfully avoided major traffic problems. Not many in the US…but they exist. Toronto, I believe, is a good example. There are several in Europe that EMR points to. The question is: are they using massive amounts of taxation and government intervention to create these successful communities? If the answer is “YES!” then I guess we’re out of luck.

    What do you think?

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think the important thing is not to make things something they are not, all you get out of that is a loss of credibility.

    Basically, we’re screwed. But there are value judgements involved, even in screwing. If you subscribe to the idea that we are only using 3 to 6% of our land area for development, then maybe sprawl is not an issue. If you subscribe to the idea that if we don’t contain sprawl then the environment, and all of us by extension, are doomed by greenhouse gasses, then maybe you are willing to live in a high rise cube and commute by elevator, if you think that takes less energy. If you are Amish or a Survivalist and you think living off the land and off the grid is the answer, well, that’s another kind of sprawl. At least if something really bad happens, those people will have some skills that give them a fighting chance.

    Different people have a preference for different kinds of screwing. My preference is they don’t ram their preference down my throat.

    Even here is a problem. I think the best system we have ever invented is roads and auto, so I arrange my life to give me the best set of benefits and costs I can find. Then, surprise, surprise, a lot of other people are smart enough to come to similar conclusions, which disrupts my previous benefits and costs. My view of this is, naturally, that they have rammed their preferences down my throat, so I go out and pass a bunch of restrictions on newcomers.

    Eventually, I get so fed up, I go look for a new set of conditions, only to discover that I am now a newcomer and guess what, I’m screwed. This has been going on since Daniel Boone first saw his neighbor’s smoke.

    Copenhagen and Curitiba are widely regarded as having good systems, but they are slow. Good systems like Paris have many stops closely located, but that also makes them slow. Then again, gridlock is also slow. But I think that recently, all major cities including Toronto and Paris have increasingly adopted some level of suburbanization.

    Every morning I face a fifteen mile backup at a construction site on Route 66. The good news is that this morning my hybrid navigated that stretch at 57.5 MPG. Over the last 400 miles it was 53.3 MPG. I was traveling at an average of around 7 to ten MPH even in stop and go backup – about twice what I could walk, and not in air conditioned comfort.

    I have never owned a car over a hundred horsepower, except two I inherited. The hybrid has convinced me that we could do a major improvement in transportation if we drove hybrid Miatas or SmartCars instead of HumVees. The maximum highway through put occurs at around 25 to 35 MPH, why do we design cars for 120? (My wife’s car is capable of 140 for God’s sake). Even my commercial trucks are low power sixes.

    I believe, and EMR has said, that every transportation system has a U shaped utility curve. My racing friends have said a sailboat is the most expensive way to travel slowly in third class.

    Take the hybrid Miata idea to it’s extreme and have a Gedanken experiment. Suppose we had hydrogen powered, air conditioned Segways capable of 30 mph. The capacity of our highways would increase by what nine, twelve?

    Would that be enough? Would we cram nine times as many more jobs in Fairfax, just so we could continue to enjoy congestion? How small a yard and abode will we put up with, before we want to change our arrangements, and where will we keep the kayack?

    The Urban Transportation Study pointed to Pittsburgh and New Orleans as cities that successfully reduced the increase in congestion. Pittsburgh apparently accomplished that through a massive loss of jobs. I don’t know anything about New Orleans, except the food.

    Getting back to successful foreign communities, much of Paris and Germany has serious economic problems. Many foreign countries have taxation levels we wouldn’t believe, but they have benefits to match. We have a strong defense. As far as I know emigration is legal, but I don’t see much of it.

    Achieving the lowest taxes and least intervention may not mean the lowest cost. If we eliminate all education taxes and hire our own tutors, are we ahead or not? I’d say yes, but I have no children.

    If every transportation system has a U shaped curve, then the corollary is that there is a maximum usable city size for the system of choice. Once we reach that point we either cut population growth, suffer congestion, or build a new city elsewhere. The growth and even invention of new towns and small cities suggests that this is the case and some form of sprawl is inevitable.

    My contenton is that fighting change (including sprawl) only adds friction and costs to the system. We should strive to make the maximum accomodation for all, strive to do it and hit that cost/benfit crossover point for each project, and make it as beautiful as possible.

    That last one is where we screw up the most.

  6. Nicely put.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Thank you, gentlemen, your comments were very helpful. In particular, Ray, your comments on the differing merits of hydrofoils vs. hovercraft vs. surface-piercing catamarans opened up a whole new line of investigation for me.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Surface ships are somewhat limited by the wavetrain they generate. “Hull Speed” is something like 1.4 to 1.8 times the square root of the waterline length. You can go faster than that, but the power curve changes from linear to cubic. In the case of sailboat racing, its a case of how far you can go up that curve before you break the mast, or something.

    Submarines don’t generate a wake so they use less power. A surface piercing catamaran is kind of a boat on stilts standing on two submarines. The narrow stilts don’t observe the same kind of relation to wave generating and power.

  9. subpatre Avatar

    Not to throw a wet rag on some of this but several facts have been misrepresented.

    All watercraft produce wake; it’s a direct, unavoidable function of displacing water by the craft. Even deep-running submarines can be tracked by their displacement. On surface craft, the amount of displacement is the volume of water equivalent to the weight supported, so a 20-ton hovercraft has the same displacement as a 20-ton sailcraft or any other 20-ton surface vessel.

    The magnitude of the wake is a product of the displacement amount (craft weight) and the crafts’ movement or velocity. Faster movement creates bigger wakes. IIRC, wakes’ energy dissipates by a square of the distance; wakes look linear but are actually collections of points.

    All the above is true until natural hull speed (Froudes Law) limit is exceeded by hydroplaning, where –through application of enormous horsepower– the hull skims on the water’s surface.

    As a practical matter, most harbors have speed limits close-in to limit wake-induced erosion.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Subpatre is correct. My comments are simplifications meant only to illustrate general issues with respect to use of various types of craft for high speed commuter transport.

    The speed of a wave is controlled by its wavelength and height and the energy by it’s height. If you observe a tugboat approaching an ocean liner, the tug will be throwing an enormous wake and the liner almost none, even though they are traveling the same speed and the liner weighs much more. The longer craft generates waves that can travel at six knots with little energy. The shorter waves generated by the tug need more height, and thus energy, to travel at the same speed.

    In practice, most boats proceed with little wake as long as they are well below “hull speed”. As more energy is applied to the boat the waves get larger, but this is particularly evident at and above hull speed. Heavier, shorter, boats require more energy and leave more wake, hence the idea for an ultrlight, pencil thin craft to achieve maximum speed with minimum disturbance.

    In the case of planing craft, the equations that describe the speed and energy of the wave still hold, but the skimming craft has left the stern wave behind, and effectively assumes the waterline of a longer boat. Pleasure craft operators see this in the fact that it takes more power to get on plane than to stay there, once skimming it is possible to throttle back somewhat.

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