Key destinations along the Chesapeake Bay could benefit from a ferry service linking them in a collaborative tourism venture in the near future.
In January, a five-county tourism consortium spearheaded by Visit Annapolis & Anne Arundel County began accepting proposals to determine the feasibility of initiating a sustainable passenger service. The other members include Calvert, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, and St. Mary’s Counties.
Specific deliverables sought by the Chesapeake Bay Passenger Ferry Feasibility Study Consortium’s RFP will be an evaluation of the financial and operational viability of providing passenger ferry service, as well as a cost-benefit and economic impact analysis of such an operation.
“It’s not just about connecting destinations, it’s about being connected to the Chesapeake Bay,” said VAAAC Executive Director Kristen Pironis. “If the study determines passenger ferry service along Maryland’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay is feasible, we’ll be one step closer to providing equal and equitable access to the Bay, and that would be a game changer.”
Primary locations include Annapolis, Galesville, Chesapeake Beach, St. Mary’s City, Leonardtown, Crisfield, Matapeake, Kent Narrows, and Baltimore.
Secondary locations to be considered include Solomons, Cambridge, St. Michaels, Easton, Rock Hall, Chestertown, Chesapeake City, North East, and Havre de Grace.
Discussions related to a tourist-focused ferry service started roughly a year ago, at that time limited to Anne Arundel County and Queen Anne’s County.
“The more we looked around the Chesapeake Bay, the more people we found who were interested in it,” Pironis said, adding that the regional approach has made the idea much more appealing.
“After COVID there has been more of a regional approach taken toward planning, and much more camaraderie among economic development and tourism across the counties,” she said. “We realize it’s beneficial, because as much as we all can get focused on our county lines, the visitor doesn’t care.”
The RFP is funded by a $125,000 Local Technical Assistance matching grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded in October 2022. The five consortium members as well as the Anne Arundel County and Maryland Economic Development Corporations will provide the required $125,000 in matching funds via a seven-way split.
The idea of operating a ferry service on the Chesapeake Bay is not a new one, but it has been an ill-fated one in the past.
The Chesapeake Flyer ferry began service between Baltimore and Rock Hall in 1990 and expanded to Annapolis, St. Michaels, and Chestertown by 1993, but discontinued service in 1994 because of low demand.
In more recent years, a hydrofoil ferry service between Baltimore and Rock Hall proposed by Maritime Applied Physics Corp. in 2006 never got off the drawing board.
The timing might be better now, Pironis said, thanks to a shift toward experiential tourism by more people looking for more meaning in their travel.
“What makes the Bay important in that respect is once you’re on the water you really figure out how connected the ecosystem is,” she said. “It sounds lofty, but we truly believe that travel and experiences can transform lives by introducing people to new ideas and new people, and it can change the way we all interact together.”
The study will take commuter use into consideration, she acknowledged, but the primary focus is on the traveler.
“[This] project has the potential to expand business and tourism, enabling residents to experience traveling on the Bay and visit other areas in our treasured region that have not been as accessible in the past,” said Earl Hance, president of the Calvert County Commissioners.
Chris Kaselemis, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic Development, said sustainable ferry service fits with the priorities of that county’s Tourism and Hospitality Master Plan and County Comprehensive Plan to expand water access along its nearly 500 miles of shoreline.
“This thoughtful and collaborative approach … is a recipe for success for St. Mary’s County and the entire state,” he said.
So far, the RFP has generated a lot of interest along with five letters of intent to submit bids for the feasibility study. The Consortium expects to award the job to a qualified bidder on or before March 15.
“There are a lot of next steps,” Pironis said. “I think we’re going to have to really dive deep on the financial model and the economic model, because it has to be sustainable. We’re going to have to find the right partners and the right funding mechanisms.”
With the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law continuing to direct funding to worthwhile transportation infrastructure projects through 2026, it’s an optimistic time to consider the initiation of ferry service for the Bay, she added.
“Even if this project doesn’t work out, the regional approach isn’t going to go away,” Pironis said. “Working with these other counties has been transformational. I think we’re learning how to work together, and if nothing else we’re on our way to have a really welcoming destination for all of us.”