House panel puts a focus on ferries

Written by Nick Blenkey
letter calls on Biden to prioritize U.S. maritime

Image: Architect of the Capitol

Ferries were in focus at a hearing titled “Examining the Role of Ferries in Improving Mobility,” held September 28 by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. As subcommittee Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.-D.C.) noted in her opening remarks, the panel has oversight on two ferry programs—one under the Federal Highway Administration and one under the Federal Transit Administration.

“One of my priorities as subcommittee chair,” she said, “has been ensuring that we consider innovative and varied modes of transportation—whether improved public transit, new approaches to micromobility such as scooters, or utilizing our waterways to move people.”

“Here in the D.C. metropolitan area, we face some of the worst traffic congestion in the country,” she continued. A 2017 study by the traffic data firm Inrix found that the worst traffic hotspot in the country was along Interstate 95 between the Fairfax County Parkway and Fredericksburg, Va. One of our witnesses, Frank Principi, represents a coalition looking to expand ferry service along that very corridor, which could help to improve that traffic bottleneck and provide more transportation options.

“We know that we cannot solve congestion by simply building more highway lanes—in many congested areas, more roads simply means more traffic. That means we need to pursue alternatives, including expanded ferry service.

“Ferries also have the potential to help us reduce carbon pollution. While passenger cars and light-duty trucks account for 58% of U.S. transportation greenhouse gas emissions, ships and boats account for just 2%. Shifting more trips from highways to waterways holds great promise for reducing our carbon footprint. It can also reduce other forms of air pollution, including smog, that cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other adverse health outcomes.

“While maritime modes of transportation like ferries are among the cleanest transportation options already, their emissions can be reduced even further as operators begin converting their fleets to hybrid, electric, or alternative fuels.

“As we work to build a transportation system that is more innovative, sustainable, and equitable, we must ensure that the federal government is a strong partner for those operating ferry service, and for those who wish to launch new routes,” she concluded. “That means providing funding options through our federal programs and doing the research and data collection needed to guide these investments.”


Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R.-Ill.) also had a constituent among the witnesses at the hearing: Kyle Godar, the County Engineer from Calhoun County, Illinois. Ranking Member Davis noted that his office had been working to resolve an issue Calhoun County has with utilizing its Ferry Boat Program funding.

“Under current law, this subcommittee authorizes two programs that provide Federal funds for ferry transportation,” noted Davis. “The Ferry Boat Discretionary Program is administered by the Federal Highway Administration, and the Passenger Ferry Grant Program is administered by the Federal Transit Administration. The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes two new ferry boat programs and grows ferry program funding levels from $550 million to $2.3 billion.

“Ferries serve diverse areas of our country, much like our highway and bridge network, from urban and coastal areas to rural America.

“As I mentioned earlier, I have a ferry in my district that operates across the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri that Mr. Godar is going to discuss. The importance of that ferry to the community it serves cannot be understated, which is why it is so important to resolve Mr. Godar’s issues.

“While ferry service certainly is not a solution for each state, it is important to understand the role ferries play in quickly connecting people and communities through water crossings. It also is important to understand the needs of ferry boat and facility owners and operators. Addressing these needs, as those here before us today will testify, is critical to improving our ferry operations.”

Witnesses at the Hearing were:

Patty Rubstello
Assistant Secretary for Ferries
Washington State Department of Transportation

Seamus Murphy
Executive Director
San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA)

The Honorable Frank J. Principi
M-495 Regional Commuter Ferry Group

Kyle Godar
County Engineer
Calhoun County Highway Department (Illinois)

You can access their prepared testimony here

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