Wakes Be Damned! The Potomac Needs a High-Speed Ferry!

The Waiheke Island ferry.

Many years ago my mother wearied of living in Washington, D.C., so she traveled to New Zealand to check out a nation that was blessed by natural beauty, governed by English common law, and poised to benefit from China’s economic boom. She happened upon Waiheke Island not far from Auckland, which had been inhabited mainly by hippies, artists and bohemians until that time. What stirred her interest as a real estate investment was the recent commencement of high-speed catamaran service between Waiheke and downtown Auckland, New Zealand’s primary business center. She purchased a little house on the island, and her thinking proved prescient. The catamaran service proved to be a popular mode for commuting, Auckland yuppies flooded the island, Waiheke enjoyed an economic boomlet, and her investment appreciated nicely in value.

When visiting my mother some 20 years ago, by necessity, I rode the Waiheke ferry. The vessel was commodious, and the trip was enjoyable. As a mode of travel, it was comparable to riding a train, and far preferable to driving a car. Ever since, the idea of commuting by ferry made sense to me, and I have always wondered why we don’t see more of it in Virginia.

People have been kicking around the idea of ferries and water taxis on the Potomac River for more than a decade now, but for one reason or another, it never got off the ground. Likewise, people have talked about starting a ferry service in Hampton Roads — perhaps there’s one up and running — but I haven’t heard much about it. Clearly, there are obstacles to establishing such an enterprise, but hope springs eternal, and the idea is getting a new look in Northern Virginia.

Reports the Washington Post:

On Thursday, a 149-seat ferry made a test run from Occoquan Harbour Marina in Prince William to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, replicating the modern ferry experience with free WiFi, charging stations and onboard concessions. For riders, the best feature was the beautiful water scenery, traffic-free.

“Better than the bumper-to-bumper traffic of 95 and 395,” said Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge).

Principi, an enthusiastic backer of ferry service, spearheaded a day-long ferry summit Thursday that brought together more than 300 officials from the public and private sectors to discuss the vision for a system that would carry passengers from as far as Prince William and as near as Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor on the Maryland shore.

Officials say ferry service could be part of the solution to the notorious traffic congestion along the growing Interstate 95 corridor, and a way to take advantage of the Potomac River — or what some call the last unused highway in the Washington region.

A market analysis conducted for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission two years ago concluded that a that a viable market exists for commuter ferry services on the Occoquan, Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Ferries are widely used in New York, Seattle, and San Francisco? So, what’s the hold up in the Washington area?

Apparently, nothing can be done without an environmental impact statement, so Washingtonians are waiting for the results of an impact study. One issue is that high-speed ferries create big wakes — although new ship designs minimize the disturbance. Another is the impact of shore-side infrastructure such as passenger terminals, parking and lighting. Good grief! Surely those problems can be dealt with. In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Let’s get ‘er done!”