ANNAPOLIS – A new Chesapeake Bay ferry, which lower Eastern Shore officials hope will jump-start the area’s stagnant economy, could be running by next spring if the General Assembly approves legislation that nearly passed last year.
Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset, and Delegate D. Page Elmore, R- Wicomico, are promoting identical bills in the House and Senate that give Somerset County commissioners permission to grant franchise rights for a regional ferry.
The ferry would connect Somerset County with Reedville, Va., cutting travel time across the bay almost in half.
“It’ll bring business development, it’ll bring tourists, and I think the Maryland Department of Transportation wants a ferry to alleviate traffic over the Bay Bridge,” Elmore said.
While an exact Maryland location has not been finalized, the Chesapeake Fast Ferry Coalition, a group of businesses and individuals supporting the new service, hope to make Crisfield the Eastern Shore’s terminus.
“Our tax base needs a boost, and we think this will help us get there,” said coalition chairman Frank Lankford. “Crisfield is really hurting bad by the demise of the Chesapeake Bay, in terms of crabbing and oysters over the past 20 years.”
State crabbing regulations have diminished Somerset County’s economy over the past decade, Elmore said, estimating a 40 percent loss of income since former Gov. Parris Glendening increased the minimum size crabs must be for watermen to catch.
An expected record-low oyster harvest this season is also jeopardizing the watermen’s lifestyle, he said.
But that doesn’t mean Crisfield is a sure bet.
The Maryland Department of Transportation is conducting a $178,000 ferry assessment study scheduled for completion by late spring or early summer, said spokeswoman Erin Henson. Of the 59 initial sites identified for potential terminals, the department has narrowed its list to 16 locations on both sides of the bay.
Virginia conducted its own feasibility study in 2001, the results of which prompted Richmond lawmakers last year to give Northumberland County ferry franchise authority.
“At the conclusion of our study, we recognized the most logical route is between Reedville and Crisfield,” said Don McCann, of Virginia’s Northern Neck Planning District Commission.
The Tri-County Council supports the cause as well. County officials said they believe a ferry that brings tourists from Virginia will ultimately help the state.
“We figure some of the people coming through are headed toward Ocean City, and to get to Ocean City they’d have to pass through Salisbury – there should be some spillover benefits outside of Somerset,” said Michael P. Pennington, executive director of the Tri-County Council.
Maryland lawmakers nearly approved franchise rights last year, but for a last-minute amendment.
A 2002 House bill authorized commissioners of Somerset and St. Mary’s counties to grant franchise rights for a ferry to operate between the two shores, along with a ferry route between Somerset County and Reedville.
But when Sen. Roy Dyson, D-St. Mary’s, took St. Mary’s County out of the legislation, House lawmakers had no time for a vote on the amended version.
“Do we need trucks from the Eastern Shore to get to Virginia over roads that that are overrun now?” Dyson said. “No way.”