LEWES — For nearly 60 years, millions of tourists and commuters have soaked in spectacular views while cruising on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. While that vista will not change, the vessels that transport passengers might look different and be more energy-efficient in the near future.The Delaware River & Bay Authority(DRBA), which operates the interstate ferry service, contracted marine architecture firm Elliott Bay Design Group for $1.5 million for a year to update the ferry’s master plan and produce a rough design of a new vessel. Elliot Bay plans to issue a report by the end of this year.
[caption id="attachment_210771" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The M/V Delaware runs on a engine first designed by a manufacturer that specialized in engines in World War II submarines. The Delaware River & Bay Authority contracted a marine architecture firm to study a potential replacement vessel. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA[/caption]
The DRBA has the option to extend the contract for up to three years, which may include a detailed vessel design to use for competitive bids and managing construction. State officials have budgeted $10 million in 2024 and another $40 million in 2025 for one new vessel.“What’s really driving this is the age of the fleet. Some of the vessels are 40-plus years old right now and they’re getting difficult to repair since the parts are becoming scarce. It’s costing more money to repair them, but of course, we’re taking in other considerations like customer experience and whether it could be environmentally friendly,” said Heath Gehrke, DRBA director of ferry operations. “The end goal is to improve service and operating costs, and this study will help lay the foundation for that.”The Cape May-Lewes Ferry runs four vessels, each with an open car deck and capacity to carry 800 passengers the 17 miles across the Delaware Bay. The first voyage in 1964 was launched with a mix of steamships and diesel-powered ships bought from the defunct Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry in Virginia. Today, the DRBA uses two ferries from the original fleet — the M/V New Jersey and M/V Delaware — that still operate on diesel engines from the 1970s.Both vessels have been renovated over the years, including a $17 million project on the M/V New Jersey that started last November. That renovation includes removing and replacing the Fairbanks Morse diesel engine, first designed by the company to serve as backup power on U.S. nuclear submarines during World War II.“The company doesn’t exist any more and it certainly doesn’t have any emissions controls at all, compared with new diesel engines that come right off the shelf,” said Robert Ekse, president of Elliott Bay Design Group, who is tasked with leading the firm’s efforts in analysing the fleet.Changing the WWII-era engine alone to a more modern version, complete with systems that scrub the exhaust, would reduce emissions, but Ekse sees some potential to explore other motors and there could be federal funding to support it. Right now, Elliott Bay is in the process of designing a battery-powered vessel for the trip between Seattle and Bremerton, Wash., capable of traveling at 16 knots.But it’s also a balancing act between ridership and customer services. Gehrke said the ferry primarily serves as a tourist attraction, but sees a lot of passengers make the trip to see their family either in Lewes or in Cape May, N.J. A small percentage of fares are for commercial use, like ferrying goods across the bay, or for a daily commute.Declines in ridership led the DRBA to start thinking about selling the last of the original vessels, the M/V Twin Capes, but ultimately turned it into an artificial reef in the ocean off Bethany Beach in 2018. DRBA spokesman James Salmon told DBT that the ferry operation ran on a $8 million deficit before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to draw back on trips. When 2020 ended, the ferry generated $6.8 million in revenue — about half of the revenue it drew in the previous year, according to DRBA revenue and traffic data. Hampered by the pandemic, just under a half a million passengers used the ferry last year.But Gehrke points out that ridership this month is up 40% compared to April 2019, and the ferry is still running on reduced capacity.“I’d say every form of transportation declined last year, and now we’re starting to see people itching to get back out there,” he said.Gehrke also pointed out that studies have shown for every $1 spent on a ticket is another $20 spent in the local economy, showing a clear influence on Sussex County’s tourism industry.“I can also tell you that people who vacation here or buy homes were sold on the idea of the ferry being that close. I’m looking to move closer to work, and every advertisement I see has the ferry pitched,” he said.Elliott Bay will be taking a fresh look at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry Marine Master Plan drafted in 2008, which includes some data and predictions about population growth as well as summertime peaks and winter lulls. But Ekse pointed out that one of the key pieces of this study, as with all infrastructure improvements in the 21st century, is how much of the population will want to use the ferry in the future.“There’s always going to be a segment of the population who don’t want to ride the ferry because it costs too much, it takes too long, or whatever reason,” Ekse said. “The responsible transportation planning considers where the population is going and how they are going to want to go there.”Elliott Bay Design Group has already started reaching out to various stakeholders, starting with the DRBA, but will expand out for comments from local leaders and others. A public comment period will also be held before the final report is issued.