Ferry Boat Feasibility Study

Chapter 6 - Waterside Operation Analysis

This chapter presents an analysis of operating a high-speed passenger ferry boat service on the waterways associated with the routes under consideration. Issues include vessel performance characteristics, vessel manufacturers, navigational restrictions, jurisdictional requirements, environmental impacts, and physical features. Cost estimates for vessels and other waterside infrastructure improvements are provided in Chapter 7.

Vessel Specifications

Fast ferries come in a number of different basic configurations including mono-hull, multi-hull (catamaran style), hydrofoil, and hovercraft (Reference Appendix 6 for illustrations of typical vessels and schematic diagrams of hull types). Vessels tend to be constructed of aluminum alloy. The most likely technology for the Potomac River service is some form of a multi-hulled vessel. These proven designs have good operating precedents in inland waterways in the United States. Furthermore, in accordance with the Jones Act (which requires passenger ferries used in the United States to be constructed in the United States), a range of U.S. boat builders could supply such vessels.

Innovations are currently underway which attempt to combine the best hull features of the basic configurations to achieve greater economies. Principal trends include the use of more than two hulls and the use of air cushion effects to raise the hull(s) out of the water. The aim is to reduce both drag and wake. There is also the added advantage of reducing fuel consumption. While taking advantage of the latest technology, care should be exercised to ensure that the Potomac service is not used as an experimental test bed for novel and unproven designs.

There is increased interest in fast ferry service in a number of locations in the United States. Most high-speed ferries in service in the U.S. are high capacity (in excess of 300 passengers). There appear to be few or no public passenger ferries in the range of 80-100 passengers. Principal cities that include a substantial element of fast ferry operations are New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco. For example, in New York in 1998, ferry passenger traffic on a typical weekday was about 29,000. Of this total, 25,000 were short distance, low speed shuttle services across the Hudson River, and about 4,000 used longer distance and higher speed services. New York, an exceptional example, has very high density communities and a long tradition of ferry operation. However, the experience of fast ferry operators has been mixed with a high turnover of companies and operations.

Vessel passenger capacity demand forecasts indicate potential peak patronage in the range of 300 to 400 single trips each way/each day on the Woodbridge to the Navy Yard route. This is based on a 30-minute service frequency at peak times, approximately $4.40 per one-way trip, and operating speeds of 40 mph for most of the trip. Assuming six departures in the peak period, this equates to an average of between 50 and 70 passengers per vessel. A bunching of demand, rather than a steady demand, over the carrying period is expected.

A spread with a distinct peak and shoulder periods, as evidenced in the table below, suggests a vessel with a carrying capacity of over 100 (to accommodate growth). 

Table 6-1 - Vessel Capacity Analysis

Departure Time AM

Departure Time PM

Assumed Demand Pattern

Distribution (1)




























(1) Assumed 350 ferry passengers per day

A larger ferry might be more suitable for tourist and off-peak services or carrying a higher payload. A larger vessel would also be capable of supporting a more flexible internal reconfiguration for conferences, dinner cruises, and similar events. This would be a primary consideration for private operators providing commuter and additional revenue generating services. A capacity of 149 passengers is a threshold beyond which the U.S. Coast Guard vessel equipment and crew requirements increase.

Based on this range of requirements, basic commuter demand needs and off-peak service needs, the likely carrying capacity will accommodate 149 passengers. Typical technical specifications for a high-speed ferry boat suitable for operation on the Potomac River include:

Table 6-2 - Typical Vessel Specifications

Capacity: 149 passenger
Length: 90 ft
Beam: 30 ft
Draft: 3-6 ft
Height unladen: 17 ft
Cruise speed: 40 mph
Engine type: Diesel/waterjet
Engine power: 1,400 hp
Fuel consumption: 130-150 gall/hour
Wake maximum: 1ft at 600 ft
Internal noise level: 65 dbA
Based on these descriptions, boat builders indicated that likely construction costs would be approximately $3 million per vessel.

Potential Boat Manufacturing Yards

There are several boat manufacturers in the United States that have experience in fast ferry construction. They often call on international partners to gain access to current advances in ferry design and technology. The following provides a sampling of manufacturers and service in the United States. 

Table 6-3 - Potential Manufacturers


Example Experience

Pequot River Shipworks
New London, Connecticut
Fox Navigation
Fast ferry in New York
Nichols Brothers

Freeland, Washington

Cross Sound Ferry Services, Connecticut
Catalina Cruise Lines, California
Gladding Hearn Shipbuilding
Somerset, Massachusetts
Seastreak America, New York
New York Waterways
Derecktor Shipbuilding
Mamaroneck, New York
New York Fast Ferries, New York
Air Ride Craft Inc.
Miami, Florida
Island Express Boats, Ohio

The manufacturers indicated that the current market for vessels is very active. As a result, there is likely to be a significant lag between order and delivery. The current lead-time to start of construction is approximately six months. Construction of a vessel in the expected size range would take between six and nine months. Given the potential for parallel construction, three vessels of the same type could be delivered within a 12-month construction period. Additional contact information for manufacturers is provided in Appendix 6-1.

Details regarding typical vessels that are currently in operation or under construction have been received from a number of boat builders. These have been included in Appendix 6-2. The specifications should only be used as a guide to the types of vessels available. Each operating circumstance will require particular modifications to meet local needs. Engine type and size can be varied to meet customer and operating needs. Interior layout and specification is open to a wide range of interpretations.


Several agencies have jurisdiction on the Potomac, Anacostia and Occoquan Rivers. The U.S. Coast Guard represents the federal presence, including coverage of the certification and documentation of for-hire vessels. South of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the State of Maryland has jurisdiction over the Potomac River. North of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge the District of Columbia handles enforcement. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries patrols the Occoquan River. The following paragraphs specify the roles of the key agencies.

U.S. Coast Guard

All U.S. vessels carrying passengers for hire are under the jurisdiction of the navigational laws enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Coast Guard in Baltimore oversees the inland waters around the Washington metropolitan area. Ordinarily the Coast Guard provides navigational law enforcement, but on the waters surrounding the Washington metropolitan area the Coast Guard relies on the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia to provide the day-to-day enforcement. The Coast Guard has no dedicated assets in the area and does not patrol this portion of the Potomac River. Occasionally the Coast Guard will be in the area and may stop to board vessels or to enforce the local speed restrictions.

The Coast Guard would be involved with the start-up and operation of a high-speed passenger ferry boat service on the Potomac River. Small passenger carrying vessels (under 100 gross tons) that carry seven or more passengers for hire are required to be periodically inspected, operate within the terms contained in a Certificate of Inspection, and be in the charge of a person possessing a license as Master, with gross tonnage restrictions dependent on the type of vessel. The Coast Guard administers the certification of vessels to carry passengers for hire and has the responsibility of inspecting vessels to ensure compliance with federal regulations. Certification can be handled through the Baltimore office. Marine Inspectors witness all tests and conduct necessary examinations for certification. Certificates of Inspection are issued to inspect vessels once they are deemed to be in compliance with applicable regulations. The regulations that apply to small passenger vessels (under 100 gross tons) are contained in 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Subchapter T (Parts 175-185). Prior to an initial inspection, plans must be submitted on the following:

  • Midship section,

  • Outboard profile,

  • Inboard profile,

  • Arrangement of decks,

  • Machinery installation,

  • Electrical installation,

  • Fuel tanks,

  • Piping systems,

  • Hull penetrations operation and shell connections,

  • Marine sanitation device installation, and

  • Steering system diagram.

Federal Law also requires that any vessel that is five net (cubic) tons or more and is used in trade or commercial service must be documented, unless it is used solely within the U.S. Virgin Islands. Vessel documentation is a national form of registration. Vessels of five net tons or more used in coastwise trade, including the transportation of passengers between points in the U.S., must be documented. Documentation requires the demonstration of ownership of the vessel, U.S. citizenship (individual, corporate, or other entity), and evidence that the vessel was built in the United States (to comply with the Jones Act). Documentation is handled by the National Vessel Documentation Center in Falling Waters, West Virginia.

District of Columbia

The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department enforces navigational laws and patrols the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and associated inlets. Within the Police Department this responsibility lies with the 24-member Harbor Patrol under the command of the Harbormaster. The Harbor Patrol enforces the laws, provides Underwater Search and Recovery (USR), and works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard to provide a boating safety program free of charge to the public. The Harbor Patrol also oversees the titling of recreational vessels. Several areas have speed regulations, which are enforced by the Harbor Patrol. Figure 3-3 identifies the restricted areas:

  • Along the Anacostia River (6 mph),

  • Along the Washington Channel (6 mph),

  • North of the Memorial Bridge (6 mph),

  • The lagoon adjacent to the Pentagon (6 mph), and

  • Potomac River adjacent to the City of Alexandria (10 mph).

There are no other maximum speed restrictions for this area.

One of the critical aspects of successful ferry service implementation will be a waiver of the speed restrictions currently enforced by the District of Columbia. Without a waiver, a 45-minute one-way trip from Woodbridge to the Navy Yard would take 70 minutes. At that rate, the ferry service could not compete on a travel time basis with other modes.

Most speed restrictions exist to control wave action generated from boat hulls. This wave action causes two main problems, shore erosion and potential damage to docked vessels. Speed restrictions on the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers are primarily established to protect boats that use marinas.

Different hull designs produce different wakes. One of the primary goals in the design of multi-hull high-speed ferry vessels is to operate at greater speeds while producing little or no wake. The level of wake generated by a high-speed ferry vessel, the wake’s dispersion rate, and performance in varying conditions and speeds can be calculated and measured.

Discussions were held with the District of Columbia’s Harbormaster to determine the process required to achieve a waiver for speed restrictions for a particular vessel. A waiver request should be submitted to the Mayor’s office. The request would likely be sent to the Police Department’s Harbormaster for review and recommendation. The Harbormaster would contact local marinas and boaters in the affected area. In addition, they would probably request actual testing on the rivers at several speeds to measure the wake and other impacts of the vessel(s). From the information collected in this process, the Police Department would submit a recommendation to the Mayor.


The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police provides enforcement on Maryland waterways. Within the study area, this includes the Potomac River south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and inlets on the Maryland side of the river. The Fort Washington docking site at the Fort Washington Marina is on Piscataway Creek. The Natural Resources Police patrol the Potomac River from the Fort Washington area. Speeds are restricted leaving the Fort Washington Marina and entering the Potomac River. The Natural Resources Police enforce these speeds. Passenger carrying vessels must be in possession of a license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard.


Boating laws are primarily enforced by Game Wardens employed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Within the study area, only connecting inlets and rivers to the Potomac River fall under Virginia jurisdiction, since Maryland patrols the Potomac River south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the District of Columbia patrols the Potomac River to the north. Speed restrictions exist along the Occoquan River and in Neabsco Creek. Changes to the restrictions are requested by respective local jurisdictions and reviewed, modified, and enforced by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Effective January 1, 1999, it is unlawful to operate any motorboat at a level greater than "no wake" speed when within fifty feet or less of docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, and people in the water. "No wake" is defined as the "slowest possible speed required to maintain steerage and headway".

Navigational Aids

Navigational maps are made available by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or through commercial map distributors. These maps are compiled from National Ocean Service charts and United States Geologic Survey (USGS) quad maps. The National Ocean Service (NOS) is a part of the NOAA of the United State Department of Commerce. The NOS is the nation’s principal advocate for coastal and ocean stewardship and provider of navigational information. The maps and charts generally include the locations of navigational aids and obstructions, including buoys, lights, daymarks, channels, soundings, wrecks, pilings, and horizontal and vertical clearances of bridges.

Waterside Operational Issues

One significant unknown is the safety of high-speed ferry boat operations. The major concerns include:

  • Conflicts with other boats,

  • Operations before dawn and after dark,

  • Debris in the river (especially following heavy rains upstream),

  • Hydrilla,

  • Ice, and

  • Fog.

Discussions with potential ferry operators, existing commercial vessel operators, marina operators, and boat owners produced the following observations:

  • Conflicts – Ferry vessels would be captained by professionals trained to operate safely on congested waterways. New York Harbor is the most often cited location where high-speed ferries operate in congested situations.

  • Operations before dawn and after dark – The ferries would be equipped with appropriate lights and navigational equipment to allow for safe operation in these conditions.

  • Debris – Manufacturers and operators state that a high-speed ferry’s aluminum hull can withstand reasonable debris strikes at operating speed without experiencing damage. In addition, a responsible Master will reduce speed in potentially harmful situations.

  • Hydrilla – Unlike a conventional propeller-driven boat, growth of hydrilla near the surface of the water during warm months should not affect the operation of the high-speed ferry’s waterjet propulsion system.

  • Ice – Discussions with operators and manufacturers indicated that modern hulls can break through up to ½ inch of ice.

  • Fog – High-speed ferries are equipped with safety-related instrumentation devices, such as sonar and infrared. However, for safety and passenger comfort, the vessel would operate at much lower speeds in fog.

Environmental Impacts of Waterside Operations

Environmental impacts attributed to this project would result from on-land construction of parking lots, road improvements, and pier/dock improvements. The actual ferry vessel does not, at this time, present a problem to the federal agencies contacted. If public funds are used, the project would follow the NEPA/404 process, whereby the federal document and COE permit are coordinated to avoid overlooking any environmental concerns and to facilitate agency cooperation and consensus.

Three areas of concern exist at several of the landing sites. In order of complexity and seriousness of regulatory compliance, these concerns include:

  • Use of park lands,

  • Endangered species (Bald Eagles), and

  • Construction in wetlands.

No environmental constraints were identified that would preclude the institution of service. Any construction will require all pertinent environmental documentation and permits.

Summary and Conclusions

This chapter described the issues related to the operation of a high-speed ferry boat service on the Potomac River. In general, the use of the river and interconnecting waterways for high-speed ferry boat service is inhibited only by speed restrictions that exist along the routes. Vessels will otherwise be able to reach cruising speeds of 40 mph. These speeds are less than many of the recreational vessels already in use on the waterways. Water traffic is light during the weekdays when the ferry commuting service would operate. Navigational aids are in place on the water and mapping is available. Federal requirements must be met in order to operate a for-hire passenger vessel. These include inspection and documentation of vessels and a licensed Master and crew.

The speed restrictions are the most important aspect involved in the review of waterside operations. Speed restrictions are based upon safety and wake effects. Ferries can operate at 40 mph, but the numerous restricted areas (6-10 mph) represent considerable impediments to a competitive ferry commuter service.

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Page last modified: Oct. 14, 2012