Aging ferry hopes for new life off shores of Cape May

Agency looking to boost traffic on ferry system running between Cape May and Delaware
Credit: wikipedia
Cape May-Lewes Ferry

The Cape May-Lewes Ferry has seen plenty of rough seas in its 57-year history, but the agency in charge of the aging ferryboat fleet is looking to a recent economic-impact study and an updated master plan to help launch a new era in waterway transport across the Delaware Bay.

In May, the Delaware River and Bay Authority, an interstate agency that also oversees the Forts Ferry, 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 local economies in both Cape May County and Sussex County, in Delaware.

Around the same time, the authority announced that it is embarking on an updated master plan, exploring ways to boost slow-growing ridership and deal with rising operational costs. It includes building a new, greener fleet and introducing higher-end amenities for passengers.

Currently, the ferry is down to two working vessels — one is 47 years old; the, other 41. A third, the MV New Jersey, which is also 47 years old, has been overhauled and is expected to be back in service later this month.

Planning the future fleet

“We’ve had a number of mechanical problems in the last couple of years, which has started to increase expenditures on repairs, maintenance, and capital improvements,” said Heath Gehrke, the authority’s director of ferry operations. “That’s not atypical — once you start to get a vessel that’s been operating in saltwater for almost 50 years, it’s 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 it was completed  in 1964, created a north-south coastal route to bypass the heavily congested, inland I-95 corridor.

No longer in need of the ferries it once used to carry passengers and vehicles across the Chesapeake, Virginia sold four of them to the authority.

From day one, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry was plagued with problems. On its maiden voyage, and with a ship full of government VIPs, the SS Cape May’s prop snagged a submarine cable while docking in Lewes, stranding its passengers for the day.

In the following years, the service underperformed on financial projections, leading to cost-cutting measures that reduced operation from 24 hours a day to 16. Despite the growing pains, the authority invested in new vessels throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and in 1994 it embarked on a fleet-wide refurbishment plan.

Swank ferry scuttled

The plan’s most ambitious step was retrofitting one of its ferries as a luxury vessel, rechristened the Twin Capes, that would offer dinner cruises and gambling. The overhaul came with a $27 million price tag, but the high-end amenities were never realized, nor the expected boost in profits. In 2017, Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources purchased the now-decommissioned Twin Capes for $200,000, then sunk it off the Atlantic coast to become an artificial reef.

Ever since, the ferry service has struggled with revenues, operational costs and ridership — especially after the pandemic year, when drivers were required to stay in their vehicles and concessions were closed.

According to the recent economic-impact study, vehicle use has dropped by about 30,000 since 2009, and passengers by nearly 100,000. Ticket revenues have dropped almost $1 million. Concessions, meanwhile, have steadily increased. At the same time, operations expenditures have risen from $34.8 million in 2009 to $40.6 million in 2018.

But since 2013, the ridership and financial numbers have gradually started to trend back upward.

“We had some declines since 2009, but I think we reached the bottom,” Gehrke said. “With the level of population and housing growth, and congestion on the roadways, I don’t foresee a decline 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 finding that each dollar of the $11.8 million subsidy that the ferry relies on from the authority to continue operation generates $1.73 in state and local tax revenue; $12.70 in local wages; and $19.76 in regional value-added.

Welcome aboard

And the small-but-steady growth in passengers since 2013, Gehrke continued, reflects changing trends in American life, in which more people are eager to avoid highway driving and be outdoors. Especially after the past 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’re more than 50% up in terms of bicycle traffic on the ferry.”

On the Delaware side especially, biking and walking paths have been greatly improved in recent years. Easily accessible trails run 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, because bikers and pedestrians must travel along a heavily trafficked roadway.

Despite this uptick in walk-on and bicycle passengers, the bulk of the ferry’s ridership — 80% — remains vehicles.

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

Available options

The first option would simply replicate the retiring fleet of three, 100-vehicle ferries, but this  would require the highest initial capital costs. The second, “midsize” option replaces the old boats with an entirely new but smaller fleet of four 75-vehicle ferries. The third option is five 55-vehicle vessels.

The authority currently has $50 million allocated for construction of the first ferry, which it hopes will begin in 2024. Rollouts of more new vessels will be staggered across the next several years.

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

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

The hope is that the ability to run more trips and improved food service, seating and other onboard amenities will attract more passengers. Gehrke also said that the authority is looking at contracting with car and bike rental businesses that would be located at the Cape May and Lewes ports.

Presidential plans

The push for greener, more efficient technology is largely in response to the Biden infrastructure plan and other legislation recently introduced into Congress that would support a cleaner, more robust American 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 curb air pollution in adjacent communities.

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

“There are myriad programs,” Gehrke said. “So, we’re really trying to go and apply for whatever we can that matches up with what we’re setting out to do.”

While the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was nearing completion in the early 1960s, a study was also being done to determine if a bridge across the Delaware was feasible. Ultimately, the authority determined that the price tag — about $250 million at the time — was not financially justifiable, given that the population centers on both sides of the bay paled in comparison to those on the Chesapeake.

Rumblings and other studies persisted throughout the following decades. The various plans had the bridge landing anywhere from near the current ferry docks in North Cape May to 50 miles up bay in Sea Breeze.

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

Earlier this year, both the Press of Atlantic City and the Cape May County Herald published editorial and opinion pieces critical of the ferry service and in support of a Delaware Bay bridge.

“The 80-minute ferry ride is a wonderful experience for those with the time to enjoy it,” wrote the Herald, “but it cannot serve as a major transportation link providing another access and exit point to and from Cape May County.”

The Press’s editors noted that, despite the estimated $1 billion price tag of a bridge, “The federal government is looking to spend … trillions on infrastructure projects, and bridge users could contribute significant toll money and still get a bargain over the $50 the ferry is charging (and a bit more in summer) for a vehicle with two people.”

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

“A bridge landing in Cape May would increase pressure to develop shoreline properties, increase habitat disturbance and degradations, and might ruin the fall passerine and raptor stopover on the Cape,” he said. “A bridge in Sea Breeze would ruin the Bayshore, turning it into something like the communities around the upper bay bridges: good for the politicians and land schemers but bad for everyone else.”

Gehrke, of course, does not support a bridge across the bay. For him, a bridge would cut against the evolving philosophy of the ferry’s passengers, who are increasingly sticking around to enjoy the amenities in  Cape May and Lewes.

“Bridges are really set up to bypass,” he said. “Ferries are meant to connect.”

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