During the partial Metro shutdown this summer, Alexandria officials worked with a local business to offer a commuter ferry that began moving an average of 5,000 passengers daily.
The limited ferry service is part of a decades-long effort to start a ferry commuter service from Woodbridge to D.C.
The Potomac Riverboat Company started offering commuter ferry service May 28. The six Metro stations that service communities south of Reagan National Airport have reopened, but Potomac Riverboat plans to continue service through the end of the year.
The commuter ferry is now offered between Alexandria, District Wharf and National Harbor, according to the company.
In its first week, the commuter ferry service carried 2,274 daily passengers and by its fifth week, 4,969 daily passengers were using the service, said Supervisor Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, who is part of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission’s stakeholder group to establish a ferry service.
Principi lost in a Democratic primary in June to political newcomer Margaret Franklin. The legislative director for U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Florida, Franklin also serves as an alternate commissioner for the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission. She is running unopposed on the ballot in November.
Now Principi, who is serving his third term as supervisor, is still supporting the proposed commuter ferry and expects local service to start in 2021.
“So we’ve looked at hundreds of permutations of this service and what it will take to work,” Principi said. “It’s sort of like a Rubik’s cube; it’s complicated. One of the major variables is the business community.”
Before he leaves office, Principi will be hitting the road for work in support of the ferry program.
He’ll visit Seattle on Sept. 12 for the Ferries Conference produced by Pacific Maritime Magazine.
“They are bringing subject matter experts on finances, operations, risk management, insurance and marketing to passengers,” he said. “So it just makes a lot of sense to be there and hear firsthand how they’ve addressed the same issues in their communities.”
Next, he’ll visit New York City on Sept. 26-27 to meet with investors, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office and vessel-owned operators to see how they’ve managed commuter ferry service.
“They can’t build the boats fast enough in New York,” he said. “They are opening, it seems, like two to three new services every year. It’s about getting a better understanding of how other communities have been successful and replicating those lessons here for the benefit of our commuters.”
The idea is to start the service with two boats that can carry 400 passengers each between the Occoquan Harbour Marina on the Occoquan River to Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB) and the new Homeland Security campus in D.C.
In the future, Principi said he hopes the ferry service can also extend to Amazon’s headquarters in Crystal City, Ronald Reagan National Airport and the Wharf.
Last September, the PRTC board of commissioners voted to request approval from the Federal Transit Administration to be the local administrator of a $4.2 million grant awarded to the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2014.
The JBAB facility has strict security requirements that may prevent FTA funding from being used at that site, said PRTC’s executive director Bob Schneider, adding the JBAB facility is a part of a critical transportation corridor and is a great opportunity to provide service.
“We have limited opportunity to move forward under that grant, but are still progressing,” Schneider said.
The federal grant requires a local match of $845,000, which can be third-party funding or in-kind contributions.
PRTC and NVRC will publish a request for information this fall to hear from businesses and others who may be interested in offering commuter ferry service from Woodbridge to D.C., said Christine Rodrigo, PRTC’s spokeswoman.
Principi said the RFI is set to be sent to a list of ferry operators in the U.S. Responses could be due by the end of the year, and the two organizations can issue a request for proposal in 2020, Principi said. A proposal would be from a business that would like to operate boats for the commuter ferry service from Woodbridge to D.C.
Continuing to develop the proposed commuter ferry project is included in the county’s Northern Woodbridge Small Area Plan, which will be voted on by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Oct. 7, Principi said.
A private-public partnership would determine when the service starts, what the ticket prices are, whether there is a subsidy and how many boats in the fleet, Principi said, adding a used boat could cost about $5 million and a new boat could cost about $10 million.
During the shutdown, Potomac Riverboat Company began offering six new morning runs from Old Town Alexandria to the Wharf in Washington, D.C.
Alexandria waived a restriction that does not allow boats to operate before 9:30 a.m. so the Potomac Riverboat Company could offer ferry service to commuters through Dec. 31, said Thomas Hamed, Alexandria’s transportation management plan coordinator. Alexandria also offered to subsidize tickets purchased during the metro shutdown between May 28 and Sept. 8 thanks to a grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, Hamed said. For a $10 round-trip ticket purchased during the partial metro shutdown, Alexandria offered to reimburse $8 to city residents and workers in Alexandria and $100 reimbursement for qualified people for a $199 annual commuter pass.
“So Alexandria has gotten behind it and that’s a very powerful thing,” Principi said. “And Prince William needs to do the same and be able to support this as a way to resolve a part of traffic congestion; it won’t solve all traffic congestion.”
Since Sept. 9, a round-trip ticket costs $18 to travel between Alexandria, The Wharf and National Harbor, according to the Potomac Riverboat Company’s website.
Dick Krauss, co-owner of the Occoquan Marina Harbor in Woodbridge, said he thinks the proposed commuter ferry from Prince William to D.C. is a fantastic idea and said it should’ve happened decades ago to help relieve traffic.
The marina has a restaurant, an event center, leasing space for boats and full service boat maintenance and repairs, he said.
“I’ve sat in that traffic for hours upon hours,” Krauss said about driving on interstates heading north. “I know it’s half the time if you go by ferry. We’ve supported it for years; it’s been a slow process.”