Ferries in Virginia

Ferries enable passengers to cross Virginia's rivers without getting wet - unless something goes wrong, which happened to President George Washington on his tour of the southern states in 1791.

After meeting with landowners in the future District of Columbia and convincing them to sell land at a fair price for public facilities, he stayed several days at Mount Vernon and then headed south to Savannah, Georgia. When he left on Thursday, April 7, he quickly encountered a problem crossing the Occoquan River to reach the southern shore at Woodbridge. Washington recorded the incident on the ferry operated by the Mason family:1

Recommenced my journey with Horses apparently much refreshed and in good spirits.

In attempting to cross the ferry at Colchester with the four Horses hitched to the Chariot by the neglect of the person who stood before them, one of the leaders got overboard when the boat was in swimming water and 50 yards from the shore - with much difficulty he escaped drowning before he could be disengaged — His struggling frightened the others in such a manner that one after another and in quick succession they all got overboard harnessed & fastened as they were and with the utmost difficulty they were saved & the Carriage escaped been dragged after them, as the whole of it happened in swimming water & at a distance from the shore — Providentially — indeed miraculously — by the exertions of people who went off in Boats & jumped into the River as soon as the Batteau was forced into wading water — no damage was sustained by the horses, Carriage or harness.

Proceeded to Dumfries where I dined—after which I visited & drank Tea with my Niece Mrs. Thos. Lee.

ferry passing in front of Jamestown
ferry passing in front of Jamestown

Alexandria started as a port city, with ferries for crossing the Potomac River until Long Bridge was constructed. Over 250 years later, it was once again the hub of several water-based transportation services providing the ability for people to use the Potomac River as a highway.

In 2008, the tour boat company that offered waterfront cruises for tourists expanded to provide regular water taxi service linking Alexandria to National Harbor in Maryland. By 2014, it had added a "Baseball Boat" to carry passengers to the Washington Nationals baseball games and concerts at the stadium in Anacostia, and a water taxi connecting with Georgetown and the National Mall.2

The next step was the development of water transit capabilities for commuters, in addition to tourists. A 2014 Federal grant to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission funded the initial start of a ferry between Jones Point Park in Alexandria and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington DC. The ferry will provide workers who live in Northern Virginia a new way to access the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, eliminating the need to drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. (None of Alexandria's water services carry cars; all provide room for just people.)3

One part of Northern Virginia was left out of the new commuter ferry plans - the area downstream of Alexandria, in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The military was unwilling to open up Fort Belvoir or Quantico to commuter ferry use, and short routes crossing the Potomac River had greater benefit/cost ratios than routes running north-south parallel to I-95 and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).4

Local officials in Prince William County have pursued a long-distance commuter ferry option for years. A 2009 "Route Proving Exercise" brought an actual ferry south from Provincetown, Massachusetts to evaluate the time required to carry commuters from Prince William County to the Navy Yard. It revealed that commuter travel via ferry would be slower compared to other forms of transit. Delays were caused by wake restrictions requiring slow speeds (especially upstream of Woodrow Wilson Bridge) and shallow depth of the Occoquan River channel.5

The cost to implement short-distance water taxi operations on the Potomac River between National Harbor-Georgetown, using Alexandria as a hub, was just 10-20% of the cost to start the proposed long-distance commuter ferry from Prince William County. The cost-effectiveness of investing $30 million to expand existing VRE services, rather than to create a new long-distance ferry, was not examined in the various studies. However, a 2012 law (HB 599) required that transportation projects in Northern Virginia had to be evaluated according to how they would affect congestion, so the cost-effectiveness of ferry vs. rail transit may be documented in the future.

In the short run, politicians may benefit from proposing new solutions to long-standing traffic congestion problems, but a commuter ferry from the periphery of the DC urban region would (at best) solve only the "how to get to work" problem. Ferries would operate as one-way transportation services, carrying commuters in the morning into DC and bringing them back to the suburbs in the afternoon.

A ferry offers virtually no opportunity to stimulate development of transit-friendly communities in Prince William, converting that county from a bedroom community into a job center. In contrast, upgrading VRE offers the potential of converting a commuter rail system into a two-way transit system, with trains running every 30-60 minutes throughout the day. Without more trains running more often, higher-density development at VRE stations (as envisioned at the Belmont Station community near Occoquan) will remain a vision rather than a reality.

Smart growth advocates who support creating walkable communities, with retail/restaurant operations next to VRE stations comparable to the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, recognize that it takes decades to stimulate such redevelopment. So long as VRE trains run only one-way during rush hours, the lack of service during the middle of the day and the evening will limit developer interest - but investment in expanding VRE services will not create new Clarendon-type neighborhoods quickly.

Subsidizing extra trains would require substantial funding for 10-20 years, until the benefits of redevelopment were obvious. The potential for using VRE to stimulate transit-oriented development is low on the Manassas Line, though there are fewer conflicts with freight rail use.

On the Fredericksburg Line between DC-Spotsylvania County, there are more residents and the demand for mid-day trains should be greater. In addition, additional VRE services throughout the day could be supplemented by the planned expansion of Amtrak services between Richmond-DC. If the Virginia Department of Transportation considers the long-term benefits of land use transformation in addition to the congestion relief benefits, then a future ranking of investments n proposed transportation projects in Northern Virginia may favor rail over ferry.

commuting via a long-distance commuter ferry from Prince William County to the Washington Navy Yard would require more time than trips in a car, CommuteRide bus, or Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter train due to speed restrictions from shallow channels and no-wake zones
commuting via a long-distance commuter ferry from Prince William County to the Washington Navy Yard would require more time than trips in a car, CommuteRide bus, or Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter train due to speed restrictions from shallow channels and no-wake zones
Source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), Prince William County Potomac River Commuter Ferry Study & Route Proving Exercise (November 12, 2009)

An simultaneous effort to re-start a passenger ferry in Hampton Roads was integrated more effectively into local transportation planning. Delays at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel led to a study of the feasibility of high speed catamarans between Norfolk and the Peninsula. A slow ferry operated between Hampton and Norfolk between 1999-2002, but failed to attract enough passengers.

The General Assembly funded a study in 2012, but the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation determined that the local governments would first have to establish the planned routes of the light rail system.6

A passenger ferry obviously would fail if it required customers to drive their car to a ferry landing, pay to park in a garage, take the ferry, then rent another car on the other side of Hampton Roads to finish the trip. A ferry would be more likely to succeed if passengers were already moving without cars, ideally walking to from their point of origin to the ferry landing and, at the end of the trip, walking to a final destination nearby.

That scenario matched the smart growth assumptions for The Tide light rail system, with the planning department's expectations that transit-oriented development will occur near the light rail stations. Ferry landings could be treated as magnets for new development, if there was a transit connection on the land side.

If a light rail line was built to the Norfolk Navy Base, for example, then the decision on where to locate a ferry landing could be aligned with the decision on where to locate the rail station at that end of The Tide. On the Peninsula end, however, there is no equivalent to The Tide. That part of Hampton Roads chose to invest transportation funding in the widening of I-66, rather than in the creation of a transit system.

a high-speed passenger ferry from the Peninsula to Norfolk could connect with The Tide light rail transit system
a high-speed passenger ferry from the Peninsula to Norfolk could connect with The Tide light rail transit system
Source: Federal Transit Administration, Seattle Ferry

Scotland-Jamestown Ferry
Scotland-Jamestown Ferry

Scotland ferry landing (Surry County)
Scotland ferry landing (Surry County)


Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry
Jamestown-Scotland Ferry south of Jamestown Island
(click on images for larger versions)


1. Benson J. Lossing (editor), Diary of George Washington, From 1789 To 1791, Press of the Historical Society, Richmond (Virginia), 1861, pp.162-163, https://archive.org/details/diaryofgeorgewas02wash (last checked February 12, 2015)
2. "About Us," Potomac Riverboat Company, http://www.potomacriverboatco.com/about.php (last checked June 12, 2014)
3. "Feds award money for water ferry commuter service from Alexandria to Southeast D.C.," Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/feds-award-money-for-water-ferry-commuter-service-from-alexandria-to-southeast-dc/2014/06/03/0e3a5916-ea8c-11e3-b98c-72cef4a00499_story.html (last checked June 12, 2014)
4. "Potomac water taxis could cost millions to operate, consultant says," Washington Post, October 25, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/potomac-water-taxis-could-cost-millions-to-operate-consultant-says/2013/10/25/c430ad3e-3d8e-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html; "Potomac water taxis may be viable, study says," Washington Post, October 9, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/potomac-water-taxis-may-be-viable-study-says/2013/10/09/41c1fdac-2c37-11e3-b139-029811dbb57f_story.html (last checked June 12, 2014)
5. "Potomac River Commuter Ferry Service Study & Route Proving Exercise - Final Report," Prince William County Department of Transportation, September 15, 2009, p.89, p.93, http://newwoodbridge.org/new-woodbridge/documents/FinalReport.pdf (last checked June 12, 2014)
6. "Whatever happened to ... Norfolk-Peninsula ferry idea," The Virginian-Pilot, June 23, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/06/whatever-happened-norfolkpeninsula-ferry-idea; "Plan would bring fast ferries to Hampton Roads," WTKR-TV, July 19, 2012, (last checked June 24, 2014)

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