Md. officials zap electric ferry proposal for Chesapeake crossing

The Olympic-class Samish of Seattle, WA, an electric version of which was considered for the Bay Crossing. (Public domain photo by TJ WSF, via Creative Commons 4.0)
The Olympic-class Samish of Seattle, WA, an electric version of which was considered for the Bay Crossing. (Public domain photo by TJ WSF, via Creative Commons 4.0)

A new state-sponsored study argues that a car-carrying ferry service would not by itself alleviate traffic on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It would also cost billions of dollars to build and operate.

The 43-page report by the Maryland Transportation Authority and state Department of Transportation concludes that a ferry service wouldn't resolve traffic woes "as a standalone option." At least one conservation group is skeptical of the state's findings, saying it's too early in the process to discount a ferry or any other option.

For their part, state transportation officials say that they'll keep the idea simmering, though on the back burner. Ferries could be considered "in combination with other alternatives" if the process to construct a third span across the Bay moves forward, the agencies said in the report.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced in 2016 that the state would conduct a $5 million National Environmental Policy Act study to decide where a new Bay Bridge should be built. Backers say a new bridge is needed to ease gridlock during weekday rush hours and summer weekends. The backups are expected to worsen as the region's population grows.

The Bay Bridge is part of U.S. Routes 50/301. It is the only Bay vehicular crossing in Maryland.

Last August, the MdTA, which owns and operates the Bay Bridge, proposed three possible routes for a new crossing as well as a "no-build" option. The agency plans to release a draft of the study and recommend a single preferred alternative by the end of this year.

The ferry study was quietly released in January in response to a Maryland General Assembly order. The state House and Senate budget committees jointly asked the administration last year to study the possibility of launching a ferry service.

The legislative committees acknowledged in their written instructions to the administration that several previous studies cast doubt on its feasibility. But those reports, they added, didn't consider new technological developments, noting that all-electric ferries "have become more realistic alternatives." By substituting electricity for diesel fuel, such operations are greener and can sidestep seesawing fuel prices, advocates say.

The last ferry operation in Maryland that transported vehicles across the Bay closed in 1952 with the opening of the first bridge between Annapolis and Kent Island. The bridge and ferry followed similar routes. A second, parallel span opened in 1973.

The MDOT and MdTA report lays out the pros and cons of restarting a ferry service.

Improvements in battery capacity and life have made electricity a more viable option than ever for ferries, according to the report.

Around the globe, a handful of systems have begun adopting the technology in recent years. Those include the EF Ellen, a Danish ferry with a 26-mile range that began operating in early 2019; the Amherst Island ferry in Canada, which is expected to launch an electric watercraft this year; and the Washington State Ferries system, which has begun converting its fleet from diesels to hybrids.

The state staff who authored the new report sought to find out whether adding a ferry service could be the sole solution for maintaining the Bay Bridge's current level of service despite heavier travel between the shores. Looking forward to the year 2040, that translates into removing nearly 900 vehicles from the span when traffic is expected to be at its worst, the agencies wrote.

The only way a ferry system could come within striking distance of that figure would be to have it run near the existing bridge, according to the report. To operate efficiently, the system would require three large vessels as well as a fourth for backup.

Each would have to be roomy enough to carry 400 vehicles. No electric ferries of that size exist. A hybrid ferry operating in Scandinavia, though, currently carries up to 460 vehicles.

Depending on the type of battery selected, it would take at least 10 minutes to charge the ferry either once every trip or every round trip. That could be done while vehicles are rolling on and off. Overall, including sailing time and boarding, the 4-mile trip is estimated to take 50 minutes.

The fare amount would depend on the service's popularity. If it runs at full capacity, travelers could expect to pay $37; if it runs at 25% capacity, the price tag soars to $150.

The service also would require more infrastructure on both sides of the shore, including new approach roads, docking facilities, fare collection stations and administration buildings. The channel would likely need to be dredged to accommodate the ferries. And there probably would be service disruptions because Port of Baltimore vessels would be given priority over passage, the report states.

The Bay Bridge itself could serve as a barrier to the service's success, the transportation officials argue. As long as the structure stands, it will compete with the ferry for vehicles. Typically, ferries operate where no other options exist.

When considering all the costs, ranging from the $780 million for the ferries to compensation for the 45-person crew, the endeavor would cost about $3.4 billion over 40 years. In contrast, earlier reports have pegged the cost of a new Bay Bridge at up to $10 billion.

The transportation agencies ultimately rebuffed the ferry proposal, writing: "A MdTA-operated ferry service utilizing all-electric ferries is not a feasible alternative to a third crossing of the Chesapeake Bay. There are currently no existing all-electric vessels in operation that would provide the capacity needs identified above and the service would be cost prohibitive from the user and operator standpoints."

The MDOT and MdTA declined to elaborate on the contents of the report for this article. "We have been swamped with coronavirus prep and response," MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said.

Jim Campbell, vice president of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association, said he hopes the state keeps a ferry service on the table as part of an array of possible strategies to combat bridge traffic. His group worries that the construction of a third Bay Bridge will lead to more urban development on the Eastern Shore.

"That's just one arrow in the quiver at most," Campbell said of the ferry. The group has hired its own consulting firm to analyze the traffic problem, and it plans to publicly release the report later this year, he added.

Bay Journal staff writer Jeremy Cox ( is based in Salisbury, Md.

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