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Modern ferry fleet to reduce carbon footprint

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LEWES —The existing Cape May-Lewes Ferry fleet carrying passengers and vehicles across the 17-mile-wide waterway is about to get a total makeover.

Delaware’s federal delegation recently announced $600,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the proposed replacement of the fleet, which will be guided by a comprehensive Marine Master Plan. The total estimated costs for three proposed replacement options vary from about $225 million to $345 million, according to the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

“If we didn’t repower two of the three vessels, we’d be in dire straits,” said Heath Gehrke, director of ferry operations at DRBA. “The vessels aren’t getting any younger.”

The DRBA, the bi-state agency that operates the aging fleet of ferries, has been working for two years now on proposed plans to replace all three existing ferries, which can carry up to 100 vehicles and 800 passengers each.

The DRBA is considering three options: Replacing the existing vessels with three ferries that can carry 100 vehicles and 440 passengers, with three or four ferries that carry up to 75 cars and 330 passengers, or with five ferries with room for up to 55 cars and 240 passengers. All would call for a gradual replacement of the current ferries, which were built in 1975 and 1981.

The biggest question remains which option officials choose. A decision could be announced as early as this summer, Gehrke said. Design and construction of a new vessel will take up to five years after a decision is made. 

Timing may also depend on the availability of additional funding from the recently enacted Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, Gehrke said.

Whichever option is chosen, the new fleet will have new technology and more efficient engines that can achieve higher speeds, according to officials, which would allow a new fleet to handle more daily trips. Changing the fleet also will mean another $20 to $24 million in upgrades to the terminal area.

“The ferry is very important to this community and to the whole coastal area,” said DRBA Board Member and Lewes Mayor Ted Becker, citing the $125 million annual boost to the local economy from ferry passengers. 

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