NORTH CAPE MAY - The Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) June 17 held a public presentation and discussion of its developing marine master plan. The planning process, launched in early 2021, is intended to define options for modernizing the fleet. A final report, expected before the end of the year, will make recommendations on capital investment and fleet configuration for a new fleet of ferries.
Before the presentation, the assembled DRBA team was asked if the planning process would include the consideration of a bridge over the 17-mile expanse of the bay as an alternative to new investment in ferries.
Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations, responded by referencing a 40-year-old study, from 1980, that concluded cost and traffic did not warrant investment in a bridge.
Gehrke added that the regulatory environment today would make a bridge an even greater challenge.
“There are many barriers to a bridge,” he added, citing a bridge toll that would need to be near $100 for a vehicle crossing. He gave no source for that figure.
Currently, four 100-car vessels ferry vehicles and passengers on a 17-mile, 80-minute crossing of the Delaware Bay between Lewes, Delaware, and Cape May. The ferry has been in operation since 1964 and has carried 43 million passengers. The ferry constitutes a portion of Route 9.
The presentation’s focus was on fleet configuration. Assumptions influencing the analysis include designing a fleet to meet current demand, which DRBA expects will continue with small growth over the next 40 years. In effect, the authority is planning a fleet for zero to a modest increase in demand over four decades.
The plan also assumes that the fleet will continue to serve passengers and vehicles on every crossing. There are no plans for passenger-only ferries.
Plans also assume that the crossing will be at or slightly better than current trip times. No one should expect that the new fleet would cross the bay much faster than ferries do now.
Future vessels must fit the current terminal infrastructure. They must be designed to maintain or lower current operating costs, with the two major factors being fuel use and crew optimization.
The assumptions make clear a planning context that is largely one of modernizing what DRBA has now. The present, in many ways, becomes the future, with a newer fleet.
There were good reasons for each assumption, yet their combination says the major change the public can expect is more modern vessels. The new vessels, presenters said, would seek to improve the customer and crew amenities and be more environmentally friendly.
The presentation listed five options for fleet configuration, but analysis has already led two of those to be jettisoned. The study is proceeding with more detailed consideration of three options planners feel are the most viable.
The options vary in terms of size and number of vessels and the impact the choices have on cost and customer experience. Planning includes a consideration of how the fleet configuration will allow DRBA to annually adjust to the sharp swings in demand between peak summer and slow winter months.
The options under consideration include:
Optimization of the current fleet configuration, with three, large, 100-vehicle, 500-passenger ferries, a familiar configuration for ferry operations since it is largely new versions of what exists today. As in today’s older configuration, this option provides capacity that exceeds expected demand.
A mid-size option, with four, 75-car ferries, would meet historic demand patterns and allow for minimal required terminal changes. More ferries could also mean more departures during periods of high demand.
DRBA planners said they have population projections that show limited, if any, population growth in the immediate service area. They said they had discussions with local tourism officials and see no strong indications of rising demand for the ferry.
There was a brief reference to the drive-around land route, which would have vehicles using the Delaware Memorial Bridge, also a DRBA asset. The comment raised the unstated question of whether the planning is designed to minimize competition between the two crossing options.
The planning schedule calls for completion of this conceptual design phase by the end of the year. This phase would set the fleet configuration and allow the winning option to go forward. Under that scenario, 2022 is a year for “full-on design.”
In the tentative schedule, 2023 becomes the year for “getting pricing” and holding discussions with shipyards. If all goes well, 2024 becomes the year for the construction of a first vessel. Gehrke said construction is probably an 18- to 24-month process.
Any schedule that calls for the level of capital investment this will require will also be captive to funding opportunities. DRBA will be seeking grants and other funding sources to offset necessary financing by the authority.
Two more opportunities are scheduled for public information and input. A second webinar is planned for later phases of the fleet configuration process, probably in the late second quarter or early third quarter. There will also be a public comment period following the release of a draft report toward the end of the year.
The process can be followed through postings made by the planning team on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry's website (https://bit.ly/3wK7rQg). The site also invites ongoing public comment.
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The last option is the small configuration, with five, 55-car ferries. It offers flexibility in meeting the peaks and valleys of seasonal demand, but the smaller vessels might impact ride quality for customers, especially in choppy water.