A New Old Vehicle for Hampton Roads
Given that so many rivers and bays run through this region, it’s a shame commuters have only one option of traveling the waterways to work: the Elizabeth River ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk. In the next few years, as tolls go on tunnels, drivers will want other options. The Paddlewheel Ferry costs $1.50 and runs every half-hour between Waterside and downtown Portsmouth. During the recent three-day OpSail and Harborfest weekend, the boats carried 32,200 passengers. Light rail transported 15,823.
That’s 48,000 trips to or from Norfolk one weekend that didn’t involve traffic or parking headaches. In the past fiscal year, the ferries carried more than 377,000 passengers – 29 percent more than the previous year. Clearly, more than tourists are taking public transportation, and likely many more would leave their cars if more ferry and rail routes were offered in this traffic-clogged region.
State Sen. Frank Wagner is pushing for ferry service between the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads. He has helped secure $200,000 to spur development of a high-speed ferry to relieve traffic on the Hampton Roads and Monitor-Merrimac Memorial bridge-tunnels. The proposal will need federal and private money, but a stress-free, reliable commute would be a welcome alternative. The idea has been tried before. In 2000, the Harbor Link ferry took 34,700 people between Norfolk and Hampton, much of that during summer, when the 149-seat boats drew about 30 passengers per trip. The service wasn’t frequent enough – departures every two hours – for commuters.
Eighteen years ago, a company proposed a high-speed ferry between Norfolk and Hampton to take passengers between Nauticus and the Air and Space Museum in 50 minutes. That venture depended on the immediate success of Nauticus,
Those plans were before road-building came to a standstill, before the transportation logjam in Hampton Roads became such a mess. Now, we’re five years away from seeing state construction money dry up and, with it, the ability to match federal money.
The Paddlewheel Ferry is a peaceful way to see two cities’ waterfronts. It’s away to avoid tunnels. It has proven to be a reliable option for commuters. With frustration evident in drivers sitting installed traffic on the HRBT, perhaps the time has come to add to the region’s ferry fleet.