Monday, May 2, 2016

How to achieve real Baltimore "Passenger Ferry Services"

If you didn't know that Baltimore City had passenger ferry services, because you think that the Water Taxi doesn't deserve a name quite so fancy, or because you don't know about the Harbor Connectoryou are not alone, and you can hardly be blamed.
Free service: Harbor Connector (Provided by the Water Taxi operator
for money from the City) photo: Baltimore Brew

However, Baltimore City's Department of Transportation (DOT) proudly announced in a press release last week that
the city was recently awarded over $1.3 million in grant funding to improve passenger ferry boat services. The money was awarded through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Passenger Ferry Grant Program.
According to a release from the FTA, these funds 'will support existing ferry service on many of the nation’s waterways, and help to repair and modernize ferry boats, terminals, and related facilities that thousands of residents in these communities depend on." The Passenger Ferry Grant Program awarded $59 million towards 18 projects in 10 states nationwide.
This clears up where the fancy term comes from but you may still wonder what is up with the "ferry boats, terminals and related facilities" that are supposedly being funded by the grant. Be prepared for a let-down.
Costly day pass: Water Taxi, mostly for tourists (photo: BBJ)
Just a couple of days before the press release, the deadline to respond to a Baltimore City DOT Request for Proposals for providing "Water Taxi and Commuter Services in the Baltimore Inner Harbor" had passed. As the title suggests, what the City asked for in not nearly as lofty as "passenger ferry services"or "terminals".

So what is going on, will we get passenger ferry service? Not likely, at least not if the respondents to the RFP stick to the request in the way the City asked for the services. The City's press release itself reveals quite candidly what the FTA grant is going to be used for:
The $1,356,992 grant will be used for Harbor Connector rebranding efforts and ADA landing improvements.
 Re-branding and ADA landings, quite different from "passenger ferry service and terminals", isn't it? Neither one really promises much improved service. The ADA part is especially curious if one considers the current boats and how even able bodied passengers require hand holding by the crew when climbing on board.

Instead of starting a new age in Baltimore's water transit that could really be called passenger ferry service, the RFP was simply dealing with the fact that the license for the water taxi services needs to be renewed from time to time. The RFP asks to provide the exact service we see today. Same vessels, same landings, same routes, same frequency and the same confusing distinction between Harbor Connector and Water Taxi.
Route map from the City RFP

Even though I am not an expert in water transport, "wharfages" and Coast Guard rules, (I don't even have a sailing licence, in spite of a friend having tried hard to teach me tacking against the wind, navigation and speed limits in the Inner Harbor and the intricacies of docking), I have tried to campaign for a more comprehensive city approach through the transit advocacy group Transit Choices, through e-mails to DOT and meetings there throughout the last 12 months or so.

Now that the proposals are in, the grant has been awarded, Port Covington plans been submitted, and the mayoral primary is decided, there are plenty of reasons to think bigger. Here a few suggestions: 
  • The City should express an aspiration to provide robust rear-round water transit service with expanded hours, expanded service points and routes and better vessels like those being used in New York or Chicago
  • A scope should only be defined as a minimum baseline service for price comparison but bidders should be allowed flexibility to provide alternative service scenarios and business plans to expand the operation
  • The three large developments at HarborPoint, Canton Crossing and Port Covington need to be included as mandatory service points. 
    Partial Port Covington plan showing water taxi piers. (Graphic: Sagamore)
    The current water taxi does not serve the Middle Branch and is too slow
    to do it effectively
  • The City should analyze to which extent water transit can pick up some of the transit deficits in the eastern portion of the city where roads are routinely clogged and the cancellation of the Red Line further exacerbated the problem. 
  • The construction of the Red Line Park and Ride facility at Canton Crossing should move forward as a ferry terminal parking lot with frequent service from Canton Crossing
  • The RFP assumption that the commuter and the visitor services should be delineated and separate should be questioned as likely inefficient and costly. (The City currently pays the provider twice as much for the sparse free Connector service than it takes in from all Water Taxi license fees combined). 
  • Instead all water transit should be one system with a electronic fare card based on the Charm Card system that allows commuters to use the system for free as the City committed to do in return for certain federal grants. 
  • All other fares should be also Charm Card based and include demand based pricing, likely resulting in better fleet utilization and higher passenger volumes during inclement weather than the currently fixed high price tourist fares. (applying a demand based fare structure is common for airlines, but also for Amtrak and transit such as WMATA in DC)
  • The city shouldn't be in the business of owning vessels, even if they are new technology like an electric boat that the City apparently will get through federal dollars. If City owned vessels can't be sold due to federal obilagtions, they should be leased to the provider with all responsibilities handled by the provider)
  • Requirements for intermodal coordination with the Circulator, MTA, bike share and tour buses should be included as mandatory
  • Land-side facilities should be drastically improved until they deserve the term "terminals".
Sturdier New York City water taxi vessels
With the new Port Covington development proposals showing water taxi landings as part of the proposed design, it is obvious that Baltimore's sunny-days-only water taxi system with its canvas clad vessels will have to step up its game. According to the BBJ, in typical Plank fashion, Plank Industries is not waiting for what the City will do. Reportedly the entrepreneur is discussing a partnership with Michael McDaniel, the current Water Taxi provider. I suppose we will all learn more once the responses to the City RFP will become public.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

City of Baltimore Receives $1.3 Million in Grant Funding to Improve Passenger Ferry Services
 "City Alternative Transportation Expansion Study: Water Transit Strategies"

Related articles on this blog:
Can Baltimore's Water Taxi become real transit?
Water Taxi - Transportation between Uber and the bus

Vesey Street Terminal, Port Authority, NYC (photo: New York Times)


  1. Just a quick note: You mention Charm Card usage. This card really needs better distribution. I use it on Bus and Subway for the same reason I am reading this blog, but I have just about never seen anyone else use it. Drivers on the 10 often give me a weird look when I tap the card. Its like I'm part of a secret club!

  2. Totally agree with you, Alex. Especially if they also expect the Charm Card to be used for the bike share.