Out and About (Sort of): Ferryland? By Howard Freedlander


Already on the Spy record for favoring a third Chesapeake Bay Bridge span configured for rapid transit—despite the astronomical cost—I was fascinated recently by a Baltimore Sun column written by Dan Rodricks. He proposed consideration of ferries.

Some might recall when ferries provided the only means of transportation for passengers and vehicles between the Eastern and Western shores. Before completion of the first 4.3-mile span in 1952. The second opened in 1973.

Now, Rodricks, who typically focuses only on the City of Baltimore and its woes and charms, went further afloat in this instance. He likely understood that the use of ferries to cross the Chesapeake Bay might prompt some chortling. Nonetheless, his premise deserves sunlight and discussion.

Frankly, I thought that ferries had limited utility. That is, this type of transit caters to a small, though constant group of passengers, such as Oxford to Bellevue in Talbot County, Lewis, DE to Cape May, NJ, Ocracoke to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, Seattle to Bainbridge Island in Washington State and Long Island, NY to New London, CT.

But we (this writer and readers) must be open-minded. The crossing of the Chesapeake Bay requires creativity. A third span, perhaps inevitable, is not carved in stone. At least $10 billion, if not more, would be necessary; that’s enormous at a time when major public works projects are scarce without an infusion of private investment, or federal money.

Okay, allow me to cite Rodricks’ words of advocacy. Be circumspect in appraising his argument:

“The governor should take a serious look at ferries. And not noisy, diesel-powered carbon-emitting ferries, but quiet, clean, battery-powered ferries. We could have a whole fleet of them deployed up and down the bay over the next decade, taking people, cars, trucks and dogs between any of many feasible points—from Baltimore to Rock Hall, from Sparrows Point to Tolchester, from Edgewater to Romancoke from Edgewood to Betterton, from Chesapeake Beach to Cambridge.”

Rodricks wrote, “Before the bridges, ferries took Marylanders across the bay. They could again. As we move away from fossil fuel and develop new sources of electricity, a 21st century ferry system would leave a light mark on the environment, provide more (and pleasant) route options for travelers, and relieve some of the congestion on the Route 50 bridges.”

Rodricks pointed to the world’s first battery-powered, zero emissions ferry launched in Norway in early 2015. It can transport up to 120 cars and 300 passengers on a 262-foot long vessel. It travels the 3.5-mile route across Norway’s longest and deepest fjord, between the villages of Lavik and Opperdel, up to 38 times a day.

This ferry takes 20 minutes to cross and then spends 10 minutes at the dock unloading, loading and recharging its batteries.

Since August, a 600-passenger excursion ship, powered by a lithium-ion battery, with a diesel backup engine, has been operating in San Francisco Bay. It is owned by the Red and White Fleet.

Putting cost and logistics aside, I believe that use of environmentally clean and efficient ferries warrants open-eyed consideration by Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Transportation Authority. Maybe ferries would negate the need for a third span. They would reduce harmful carbon emissions. Passengers would enjoy the Bay views.

Norway may provide an innovative approach for relieving awful congestion on our two Bay Bridge spans. Discussion of a third span could become moot.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.


Letters to Editor

  1. The ferries of long ago were a joy and have provided great memories for those of us old enough to have had the pleasure of traveling across the bay on them. However, ferries have been tried in the past and met with immediate disaster. The debris coming down from releases at the Conowingo Dam were hard to spot and caused serious damage to the boats. Until the issues with the Conowingo Dam are addressed

    • Gren Whitman says

      Conowingo Dam is not causing the “debris” problem in Chesapeake Bay.
      The only sources of “debris” in the Bay are the woods and shores stretching hundreds of miles along the Susquehanna River, plus the thousands of shoreline-miles of woods bordering the Bay itself.
      I’ve never spotted a single tree growing on Conowingo Dam! Have you?

  2. Adam Hagelgans says

    Here’s the referenced post by Dan Rodricks, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/dan-rodricks-blog/bs-md-rodricks-column-ferries-0310-story.html if anyone else was interested

  3. Frederick Patt says

    Thanks Ms. Whitman; the Conowingo Dam gets a bum rap for multiple offenses it is not responsible for.

    I would like to see some documentation that ferries “met with immediate disaster” in the past. There is a lot of boat traffic on the Bay, commercial and recreational, and somehow they are not much bothered by debris except during extreme weather events.

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