New life in store for the Cape May ferry

Credit: Wikipedia
Cap May-Lewes Ferry

The Cape May-Lewes ferry has seen many rough seas in its 57-year history, but the agency responsible for the aging ferry fleet is considering a recent economic impact study and updated master plan to help launch a new era in river transport across Delaware Bay.

In May, the Delaware River and Bay Authority, an interstate agency that also oversees the Forts Ferry, the Delaware Memorial Bridge and five regional airports, released the results of an economic impact study that found that every $ 1 invested in its Cape May Lewes Ferry service pumped $ 20 into the local economies of Cape May and Sussex counties, Delaware.

Around the same time, the authority announced that it was embarking on a updated master plan, exploring ways to stimulate slow growing ridership and deal with rising operating costs. It includes the construction of a new greener fleet and the introduction of high-end equipment for passengers.

Currently the ferry is reduced to two active vessels – one is 47 years old; the other 41. A third, the MV New Jersey, which is also 47, has been overhauled and is expected to return to service later this month.

Planning the future fleet

“We have had a number of mechanical issues over the past two years which has started to drive up spending on repairs, maintenance and capital improvements,” said Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations for authority. “This is not atypical – once you start to have a vessel that has been operating in salt water for almost 50 years, it is really time to start thinking about the future fleet.”

The Cape May-Lewes ferry system was New Jersey and Delaware’s answer to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, which, when completed in 1964, created a north-south coastal route to bypass the corridor. heavily congested I-95 interior.

No longer needing the ferries she once used to transport passengers and vehicles across the Chesapeake, Virginia sold four to the authority.

From day one, the Cape May-Lewes ferry has been in trouble. On her maiden voyage, and with a ship full of government figures, the SS Cape May’s propeller hooked up a submarine cable while docking at Lewes, stranding its passengers for the day.

In the following years, the service underperformed against financial projections, which led to cost-cutting measures which reduced the operation from 24 hours a day to 16. Despite growing difficulties, the authority invested in new vessels throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1994 embarked on a fleet-wide refurbishment plan.

The scuttled Swank ferry

The plan’s most ambitious step was to transform one of its ferries into a luxury ship, renamed Twin Capes, which would offer dinner cruises and gambling. The redesign came with a price tag of $ 27 million, but the top-of-the-line amenities were never made, nor the expected increase in profits. In 2017, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources purchased the now decommissioned Twin Capes for $ 200,000, then sank it off the Atlantic coast to become an artificial reef.

Since then, the ferry service has struggled with revenue, operating costs and ridership – especially after the pandemic year, when drivers had to stay in their vehicles and dealerships were closed.

According to the recent Economic Impact Study, vehicle use has declined by around 30,000 since 2009, and passenger numbers by nearly 100,000. Ticket revenues have fallen by nearly $ 1 million. Meanwhile, the concessions have continued to increase. At the same time, operating expenses increased from $ 34.8 million in 2009 to $ 40.6 million in 2018.

But since 2013, traffic and financial figures have gradually resumed an upward trend.

“We’ve had a few drops since 2009, but I think we’ve hit bottom,” Gehrke said. “With the level of population and housing growth, and congestion on the roads, I don’t foresee any drop in (ferry) traffic, other than the unexpected economic loops we have from time to time.

A rosier side of the economic impact study was the conclusion that every dollar of the $ 11.8 million grant that the ferry authority relies on to continue operation generates $ 1.73 in state and local tax revenue; $ 12.70 in local salaries; and $ 19.76 in regional added value.

welcome aboard

And the low but steady growth in passenger numbers since 2013, Gehrke continued, reflects the changing trends in American life, in which more and more people are keen to avoid freeway driving and be out of town. outside. Especially after a year and a half.

“I don’t have the exact statistics in front of me,” he said. “But this year compared to 2019 – the last time operations were normal – we are up over 50% in terms of bicycle traffic on the ferry.”

On the Delaware side in particular, the cycling and walking trails have been greatly improved in recent years. Easily accessible trails lead to nearby Lewes, as well as through Cape Henlopen State Park to Rehoboth. On the New Jersey side, accessibility to nearby Cape May is less attractive as cyclists and pedestrians have to use a busy road.

Despite this increase in foot and bicycle ridership, the bulk of the ferry’s ridership – 80% – remain vehicles.

In the updated master plan, three “fleet configurations” are analyzed by Seattle-based naval architecture firm Elliot Bay Design Group. All options would include brand new custom-built vessels, but none would increase passenger capacity. Instead, the focus is on maintaining the 1% to 2% annual growth rate of the ferry’s current ridership.

Available options

The first option would simply replicate the retired fleet of three 100-vehicle ferries, but this would require the highest initial investment costs. The second option, “medium size” replaces the old ships with an entirely new but smaller fleet of four ferries of 75 vehicles. The third option is five ships of 55 vehicles.

The authority currently has $ 50 million earmarked for the construction of the first ferry, which it hopes will begin in 2024. Deployments of new vessels will be phased in over the next few years.

In early June, the authority held its first public meeting to discuss the master plan, so it is too early to say which configuration will work best for the ferry, Gehrke said. But there is a clear idea of ​​what the authority wants.

“We want to be green, we want to be efficient and we want to meet customer demand,” Gehrke said.

The hope is that the ability to make more trips and improved food service, seats and other on-board amenities will attract more passengers. Gehrke also said the authority was considering contracting with car and bicycle rental companies to be located in Cape May and Lewes harbors.

Presidential projects

The push for greener, more efficient technology is largely in response to the Biden infrastructure plan and other laws recently introduced in Congress that would support a cleaner and more robust US ferry fleet.

President Joe Biden’s plan calls for an investment of $ 17 billion in “inland waterways, coastal ports, land ports of entry and ferries.” The funding would also support a “Healthy Ports” program that would seek to reduce air pollution in adjacent communities.

Also, in May, U.S. Representative Donald Payne (NJ-10) and Rick Larsen (WA-2) introduced the GREEN Ferries Act, which would boost federal investments in low-emission, zero-emission ferries for state and local entities. The Federal Transit Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency also have ferry subsidy programs.

“There are a myriad of programs,” Gehrke said. “So we’re really trying to go out and ask for whatever we can that is what we’re about to do.”

While the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was nearing completion in the early 1960s, a study was also underway to determine if a bridge across the Delaware was feasible. Ultimately, the authority determined that the price – around $ 250 million at the time – was not financially justifiable, given that population centers on both sides of the bay were pale compared to those of the Chesapeake.

Rumors and other studies persisted throughout the following decades. The various plans called for the bridge to land anywhere near the current North Cape May ferry docks up to 50 miles into Sea Breeze Bay.

And the authority’s announcement that it is embarking on an improved master plan appears to have rekindled hopes for a bridge project among ferry opponents.

Earlier this year, the Atlantic City Press and the Cape May County Herald ran editorials and opinion pieces criticizing the ferry service and in favor of a bridge in Delaware Bay.

“The 80 minute ferry ride is a wonderful experience for those who have the time to enjoy it.” wrote the Herald, “but it cannot serve as a major transportation link providing an alternate point of entry and exit to and from Cape May County.”

The editors of the press Noted that despite the estimated $ 1 billion price tag for a bridge, “the federal government is looking to spend … billions of billions on infrastructure projects, and bridge users could contribute significantly to tolls while getting a good deal on the $ 50 the ferry charges (and a little more in the summer) for a vehicle with two people.

Larry Niles, a biologist who has studied South Jersey Bayshore wildlife and habitat for decades, warns that a bridge could have devastating effects on the region’s fragile landscape.

“A bridge disembarking at Cape May would increase pressure to develop coastal properties, increase habitat disturbance and degradation, and could ruin the fall stop for passerines and raptors on Cape Town,” he said. -he declares. “A bridge at Sea Breeze would ruin the Bayshore, turning it into something like the communities around the upper decks of the bay: good for politicians and schemers, but bad for everyone. “

Gehrke, of course, does not support a bridge over the bay. For him, a bridge would go against the evolving philosophy of ferry passengers, who continue to enjoy the amenities of Cape May and Lewes.

“The bridges are really set up to bypass,” he said. “Ferries are made to connect.”