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New fleet on the horizon for Cape May-Lewes Ferry

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Next-generation replacements of the Cape May-Lewes ferries, like the MV Cape Henlopen seen here, will feature green-energy capabilites. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DRBA

Next-generation replacements of the Cape May-Lewes ferries, like the MV Cape Henlopen seen here, will feature green-energy capabilities. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DRBA

LEWES — In the coming decades, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry will boast a whole new fleet of slightly smaller vessels after a multimillion-dollar investment that’s already years in the making.

In February, officials with the bi-state Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA), which operates the ferry system, along with contractors for the planned replacement of three existing ferries, outlined why stakeholders and operators have chosen to replace the existing fleet with four 75-vehicle vessels that can carry 330 passengers each. The current fleet of three 100-vehicle vessels has been in operation for more than 40 years — although the ferries have received significant upgrades since their maiden voyages.

Over the next decade or so, the DRBA will invest roughly $320 million to get the new fleet up and running. That cost includes not only constructing the new vessels, but upgrading the ferry terminals to handle the new equipment. 

“We have taken great strides to make sure that the public on both sides of the Bay and major stakeholders have had input and are in the process,” said James Salmon, spokesman for the DRBA. “This comes directly from feedback not only from participants, but also from our marine crews that will be responsible for operating the vessels.”

An economic study conducted in 2019 found that the ferry’s services create more than 4,100 jobs and have a $236 million impact on the regional economy. Hundreds of thousands of people use the ferry every year to cross the Delaware Bay between Lewes and Cape May, N.J.

Of the four options the DRBA was weighing, officials said the one chosen made the most sense financially and logistically for both ferry terminals. It took about two years of planning and public outreach to reach the decision, and it will take at least another three years before the first of the four new vessels is constructed. It will take longer before all four ferries are making the 17-mile trek across the mouth of the Delaware Bay in place of today’s MV Cape Henlopen, MV Delaware and MV New Jersey, which can each carry 800 passengers per trip.

“This is a long-term vision for the ferry,” Salmon said. “We’re planning for the next generation of vessels that’s gonna impact the operating expenses of the ferry well into the future. As an organization, we have to get it right.”

John Waterhouse, with naval architects Elliott Bay Design Group, said during the February meeting that the vessels are designed to last for the next 40 to 50 years. That’s why DRBA and its main contractor Elliott Bay Design Group are also setting aside space in each of the new vessels for future energy-efficient technologies to replace current diesel power. That could mean battery systems or possibly another technology that’s not yet gained traction in the United States.

“That infrastructure is not here yet, but just the fact that they’re looking that far forward and are buying equipment that will be able to have that option down the road, I thought that was very forward-thinking,” said Betsy Reamer, executive director of the Lewes Chamber of Commerce.

And while the new fleet may be smaller, sleeker and more fuel efficient, the journey will still take an estimated 80 minutes, Salmon said.

Now that the new fleet option has been chosen, more designing is in the works. The DRBA and its contractors revealed preliminary plans, but officials said those are likely to shift in the coming months.

People are still invited to comment on the DRBA’s Marine Master Plan online at cmlf.com/marine-master-plan, by emailing marinemasterplan@drba.net or by leaving a voice message at  609-889-7280, extension 27280.

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