Imagine, if you will, a ferry leaving City Dock in Annapolis. Now another right behind it.

One is a small electric-powered boat making the short trip across Spa Creek to Eastport, where the people on board can walk or bike around what was once a waterman’s village and is now home to a museum, places to eat, marinas and millionaires.

The other might be electric, too, or maybe still operating on diesel. It is headed up the Chesapeake Bay to Sandy Point State Park, and then across the bay to Kent Island with its collection of bars, restaurants and hotels clustered on the Narrows.

You may be wishing that this was now and that Maryland had never abandoned the network of ferries that once tied it together. You may have seen news coverage of a regional study looking into restoring some of those connections, the results of more than a year of research led by Visit Annapolis and a consortium of other counties.

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Problem is, much of what you read is wrong.

When this study is released in August, it won’t lay out a plan for a romantic commute. It’s about where Maryland can go economically, not how it can get around the Baltimore Beltway now that the Francis Scott Key Bridge is history. It has nothing to do with easing traffic backups on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

It’s about destinations and remaking communities around the bay.

“I think what is exciting about this project, and why [six] counties are a part of it, is this project can spur that investment towards the quality of life for the residents there,” said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis. “That, to me, is the best potential of this.”

This started in January 2023, when Visit Annapolis — a publicly funded tourism bureau promoting Annapolis and Anne Arundel County — teamed up with counterparts in Calvert, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and St. Mary’s counties and hired Cambridge Systematics to study what it would take to bring ferries back as a tourism venture.

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The Virginia consultant spent a year looking at potential destinations, passenger traffic, infrastructure needs and more. Late last year, St. Mary’s County commissioners got an update from their economic development team. A map was released showing the 30 or so stops being considered, which were grouped in phases.

Congestion, particularly on the Bay Bridge, is one reason this idea captures the imagination of many people. Backups can reach miles on an average Tuesday. The process is underway to replace it, but that will take decades and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

And climate change is driving us (get it?) to ditch the internal combustion engine in favor of electrically powered modes of transportation. So, an electric ferry hits some people in the existential sweet spot, scratching an itch to feel like you’re saving the planet while spending less time in traffic.

But no matter how emotionally appealing the idea might be, it is not true. This is not about daily travel.

Baltimore, Annapolis and and Kent Island have theaters, museums and cultural landmarks, live music venues, festivals, restaurants, shops and hotels that together form a critical mass attraction for tourists. There is something to do, and adding a way to get around by ferry would be a Ferris wheel rather than a waterborne utility.

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Annapolis could partner with Queen Anne’s County on a route connecting tourists and their money across the bay with local businesses. That might look something like this.

Friday night, drive to Annapolis, have dinner and catch some music and stay in a hotel. Explore a little on Saturday morning and then take the afternoon ferry over to Kent Island for dinner and music and spend the night. In the morning, take the ferry back to Annapolis, grab a bite do a little shopping get back in your car and go home.

Some of the communities being studied can’t support that. Some have little other than a remote location on the water.

“What we’re doing in Annapolis, it’s going to be totally different than what we do with any other destination,” Pironis said. “We can’t possibly tell Crisfield what they should do there. They have to work with their local community, they have to work with their local government.”

There are ferries already running on the bay. A few of them cross small rivers like the Tred Avon, and family-owned lines make longer trips from the mainland in Crisfield and Reedsville, Virginia, to Smith and Tangier islands. But you have to go out of your way to use them, and once you get to those towns and the famous bay islands, there isn’t a whole lot to do.

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If leaders in Somerset County or on the Northern Neck of Virginia decide to invest in a ferry system, the rationale might be to build it and hope that private investment will follow. That’s different from Annapolis, which would be looking to expand an already thriving tourism industry.

Ferries are having a moment. Annapolis is pursuing a small electric ferry connecting City Dock and downtown with the Eastport community — potentially reducing parking pressure created by restaurants and bars. The city got a $3 million federal grant to buy two battery-powered electric vessels, and Baltimore received $5 million to replace its hybrid-electric ferries. There has been talk of a ferry to the state wildlife management area at Holly Beach Farm.

Any plan would have to navigate the Jones Act, a century-old law intended to protect U.S. shipbuilding and the merchant marine. It’s complicated, but basically the law would almost surely require U.S.-made vessels. Running and maintaining boats is also an expensive proposition.

A boater passes through Annapolis Harbor, with the Maryland State House in the background. The city of Annapolis is pursuing the idea of a small electric ferry link downtown with Eastport. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

You have to wonder if that’s why companies like Watermark Tours in Annapolis aren’t doing this. Owner Jake Iversen, who took over the company in 2022, has declined to talk about the study a couple of times.

The company operates water taxis from May through September, offering a service that sounds a lot like the City Dock-to-Eastport ferry. It also operates excursion cruises around Annapolis plus a run to St. Michael’s (where there are lots of restaurants, bars, museums and galleries) twice a week. It’s another venture similar to a ferry.

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The study won’t examine the potential for new jobs, nor will it look deeply into sources of money.

Voyaging over the Chesapeake will be much more expensive than crossing Spa Creek.

When the final report comes out this summer, pay attention to who is being serious about the next steps. If the study shows that ferry services in small hubs could work, it will require private, federal, state, county and municipal investment.

Ignore the people who get excited and say, “Oh, we’re gonna get on a ferry.”

“There’s so many steps before we get to that,” Pirionis said. “This is not inexpensive. Nothing about a ferry system is.”