Is it time to bring back ferry service on the Chesapeake Bay? One group is eager to find out

Visit Annapolis is trying to determine if the service is sustainable and has set a June target date for finishing a study.

Published on: January 03, 2023 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: January 03, 2023 4:27 PM EST

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There is an enduring appeal to the notion of traveling the Chesapeake Bay by ferry.

Maybe it’s the thought of standing at the rail, watching as the tide and miles roll away. Or perhaps it’s a traffic-jam daydream: getting somewhere without the endless glare of a thousand brake lights ahead of you?

Now a consortium of Annapolis and five counties including Anne Arundel joins the long list of those romanced by the prospect of reconnecting cities around the bay again by water. Visit Annapolis, the nonprofit tourism agency, launched a call for proposals Tuesday to study what it would cost and what we would gain by restoring ferries to the Chesapeake.

The push follows years of starts and studies and comes some seven decades after the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge signaled the end of regular ferry service.

“People love the nostalgia of that sort of slow travel across the bay and that’s something that you don’t necessarily get when you’re sitting in traffic,” said Kristen Pironis, executive director of Visit Annapolis. “I also think people are connected to the environment in a different way today.”

The request for proposals is ambitious, setting a 40-day deadline for selecting a consultant and a June target date for completing the study and releasing the results to the public. That could be pushed back on the advice of the winning consultant. Calvert, Queen Anne’s, Somerset and St. Mary’s counties also are members of the group.

Funded by a federal grant and local matching funds, the feasibility study would examine the possibility of a sustainable passenger service connecting Annapolis, Baltimore, Galesville, Chesapeake Beach, St. Mary’s City, Leonardtown, Crisfield, Matapeake and Kent Narrows. Additional stops are possible.

The initiative isn’t intended as a replacement for travel by road, but rather as a compliment. The ferry service would transport people, not cars. At its center is the concept that a trip is an experience that provides meaning.

That doesn’t mean that commuters can’t dream.

“Our focus right now is really connecting different tourist areas around the bay,” Pironis said. “But I mean, boy, it’s hard not to think about where it could go. And that’s why I think it’s really exciting.”

With a few exceptions, Maryland ferry service on the Chesapeake ended with the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952. There is still a seasonal river ferry in Talbot County and regular service from Smith and Tangier islands to Crisfield.

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By comparison, San Francisco Bay Ferry offers daily, weekday-only and seasonal service that caters to both tourists and commuters, though in a far more populated area.

This study won’t be the first time that someone has tried to bring back a ferry system.

Thirty years ago, a group of entrepreneurs connected Baltimore and Rock Hall with the Chesapeake Flyer. The $1 million, 135-passenger catamaran hit obstacles in the water within days of its launch and was out of business in less than five years.

Twenty years ago, Maritime Applied Physics Corp. studied using private high-speed, fuel-efficient hydrofoils for service linking points on the bay.

“Well, the roadblock was financing for it,” said Mark Rice, president of the Baltimore-based shipbuilder. “It’s probably not a viable standalone system as a profit-making entity. Probably, like most of the other fast ferry systems in the U.S., it’s got to be part of a public transportation system.”

This time, though, things may have changed enough to make it work. As a tourism initiative, it has the potential to link to attractions on the Eastern Shore that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago.

The National Park Service and Maryland State Park Service invested millions in the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park south of Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, and a similar project has started to memorialize the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This fall, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes announced plans for legislation creating the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, run by the National Park Service out of Annapolis.

The CNRA would link sites around the bay. Pironis said the proposal wasn’t the motivation for the ferry study, but the timing could provide a huge boost.

So, while public transportation might be part of a passenger ferry system as the consortium imagines it, boosting the economy of the different ports would be the primary objective.

It is a three-hour drive from City Dock in Annapolis to City Dock in Crisfield by car, and even if a boat trip isn’t much faster that isn’t really the point.

“We in Somerset County try to look for ways to increase visitation exposure, all those types of things a healthy tourism economy works on. Especially in Crisfield … the bay is one of our biggest assets,” said Clint Sterling, director of recreation, parks and tourism in Somerset County. “This project excites us because we’re able to put that asset to work to use the bay as a connector to get folks into the county.”

The feasibility study would look at financial and operational variability, as well as minimal landing requirements. It would examine and rank potential routes.

The consortium wants the results to answer questions about ridership, setup and ongoing costs, potential revenue and fares. What kind of jobs would this service create, and which government agencies might operate it?

“We don’t need to be in charge of this. We are not experts in ferries,” Pirionis said. “But we are experts in tourism … and that’s really where it’s going to start.”

The study comes as Maryland conducts its own $28 million study of bay transportation, but for an entirely different purpose.

In June, Gov. Larry Hogan kicked off a Tier II study needed to move forward with plans for a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span at Sandy Point. The five-year study must examine alternatives, including building a tunnel, other locations, not building a span — and a ferry service that can carry cars and take pressure off the bridge.

That last option is unlikely to get much traction. A 2020 report by the Maryland Transportation Authority concluded that to have an impact on traffic, a service would have to be larger than anything operating now.

Because this latest study is sponsored by local jurisdictions rather than the state or a private enterprise, a change in perspective may result in a different outcome.

Pironis said organizers of the new ferry study haven’t been in touch with the outgoing Hogan administration, or with Gov.-elect Wes Moore. He has expressed support for reinvigorating some mass transportation projects that were shelved during Hogan’s eight years in office.

Moore has said nothing about support for a bay ferry.

“We don’t know. In particular, we didn’t ask that question,” Pironis said. “We really wanted to come to the feasibility study to see if it is, in fact, feasible. Then we will work with the Department of Transportation.”

There is other political support. Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley has discussed creating an electric ferry connecting parts of the capital city. Anne Arundel County Executive Stewart Pittman has talked about the potential for ferry links between Annapolis and outlying nature or historical attractions, such as Holly Beach Farm and Historic London Town and Gardens.

“It’s not about cars. It’s not about replacing a bay bridge,” Pironis said. “It’s about getting people on the water and that tourism experience and economic development.”

And if the study comes back with a hard no, that the time isn’t right?

“I think that (it) would be a pretty amazing thing for us to be able to say at least we looked into it, and this is the right thing to do and these will be the next phases; or that we looked into it and now’s not the right time and move on.”