NORTH CAPE MAY - The Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) Oct. 7 held its second virtual meeting on its evolving marine master plan. This meeting dealt with the analysis of options for the configuration of a new ferry fleet.
In June, the first meeting on the master plan laid out the assumptions and goals for a modernized ferry system, with a 25-year planning horizon. The planning process, launched in 2021, is intended to define a new fleet for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. A final report will make specific recommendations for capital investment.
In this second meeting, the DRBA planning process focused on options and analysis for investment in new vessels. The analysis looked at three options, with one of them broken into two alternatives.
Option one involves the modernization of the current arrangement of three large 100-vehicle vessels.
Option two A considers three medium-size vessels with a capacity for 75 vehicles each
Option two B has the same medium size vessels but analyzes the outcomes with four rather than three new ferries.
The planning process considered costs, both capital and operating, scheduling, seasonal variation requirements, the potential for terminal alterations to handle different size vessels, and a 25-year life-cycle total expense. It also considered the impact of varying vessel sizes on passengers' experience.
All the options provided more round trips than the existing fleet due to the faster trip time of the more modern ferries. DRBA added concern for the ability of all configurations to support potential growth in ferry usage.
Difficulty in any planning effort for the Cape May-Lewes Ferry service is the extreme variability in usage over three seasons of the year – summer, shoulder, and winter. Providing flexibility to “right-size” the fleet for seasonal demand was a consideration. The planning also considered the differences in weekday versus weekend usage.
Option one had the highest capital and operating costs, while option three offered the lowest in both categories. The cost for option two A was lower than the configuration of large vessels, but quickly grew to near the same expense when a fourth medium vessel was added in option two B.
The smaller, lighter vessels in option three allowed for the most flexibility in scheduling for variable demand over the seasons, but the added “movement” that passengers will feel in the lighter ferries may make for a problem in passenger experience.
The planning team will make site trips to locations that use smaller vessels to see firsthand if the impact on passenger experience is significant.
Another problem with smaller vessels may be more frequent cancellations in winter when the weather in the bay could impact the vessels in ways that it does not with the larger ferries. Option three also may require the greatest amount of alteration at the terminals, which now handle much larger vessels.
The total 25-year life cycle costs by option show a 28% variation between the most and least expensive options. Option one had an estimated 25-year price tag of $853 million, while option three came in at $616 million. Options two A and B were priced at $643 million and $787 million, respectively.
An alternative that is not part of the planning process is a bridge over the 17-mile expanse, from Cape May to Lewes, Delaware. In June, Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations, referenced a 40-year-old study from 1980 that concluded cost and traffic did not warrant investment in a bridge.
"There are many barriers to a bridge,” he added.
Any bridge would also represent competition for DRBA’s existing Delaware Memorial Bridge, an issue not cited in Gehrke’s remarks.
The Oct. 7 presentation was to familiarize the public with the options being considered. It presented no conclusion for the recommended fleet configuration. Presumably, that will not be offered until the final report, which is expected late this year or early 2022.
DRBA is asking for public comment on its plans, which can be made through email, at firstname.lastname@example.org, via phone message, at 609-889-7280, or by mailing comments to Gehrke, PO Box 827, North Cape May, NJ 08204.
A copy of the presentation is available on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry's website.
Option three is to downsize the vessels to five smaller 50 vehicle vessels.