The bi-state Delaware River and Bay Authority recently announced it would pay $1.5 million a year to develop a master plan for new, redesigned ferry vessels.
Considering the DRBA’s costly debacle the last time it rebuilt its ferries, this alone should set off alarm bells in New Jersey and Delaware.
In the early 1990s, the authority spent about $5 million per vessel to renovate most of them, an efficient way to keep the service running. But the authority board decided to make one of them, the Twin Capes, “like a cruise ship” and “one of the premier ferry vessels in the nation.” Officials imagined dinner cruises and possibly even casino gaming, instead of just ferrying people between North Cape May and Lewes, Delaware.
The luxury Twin Capes cost $27 million and started service in 1996. It found almost no new business, but in 2000 a U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection found “very significant unsanitary conditions.” After three rounds of failed food tests the following month, the FDA ordered the ferry’s food service to close.
The fourth deck added to the Twin Capes made it less stable, and in 2002 passengers waited two hours at sea in a storm while a docking place was prepared for it.
Their luxury ferry dreams never realized, the DRBA overseers put the Twin Capes up for sale in 2010. No one wanted it and six years later it was scuttled to be part of an artificial reef in the Atlantic.
Tom Cook, executive director of the DRBA, said last month its goal is to “execute a plan for the future. The possibilities are endless.” But apparently the possibilities for transportation across Delaware Bay begin and end with new vessels.
The DRBA for decades has resisted considering the possibility of a bridge, which would have extraordinary advantages for the traveling public. Crossing a 17-mile bridge would save drivers more than an hour over waiting for and taking a ferry. People could travel between the states whenever they want, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of trying to fit into the limited sailings of the ferry vessels. The capacity to handle travelers would be vastly increased and it would be a boon to tourism in both states. And carbon emissions would be greatly reduced.
The public and officials in both states have pressed the DRBA to consider a bridge. In 2003, then-Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew and a counterpart in the Delaware Senate called for a bridge feasibility study. The DRBA chairman estimated a bridge would cost $1 billion, which in today’s dollars would be $1.4 billion — but no study was done, then or since.
This is an especially favorable time to consider a bridge. Interest rates have never been lower, so bonding would be as inexpensive as it gets. The federal government is looking to spend more trillions on infrastructure projects. And bridge users could contribute significant toll money and still get a bargain over the $50 the ferry is charging (and a bit more in summer) for a vehicle with two people.
To see how it’s done, look down the coast to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, also 17 miles long and built in the 1990s entirely with bonds covered by tolls, not taxes. And that span over deep water and two shipping channels required a costly tunnel. In shallow Delaware Bay, low-level trestles and a simple suspension or cable-stayed span over the single shipping channel would be used.
A Cape-Lewes bridge would be a dramatic improvement for travelers and the economies of the two states, and may be the most cost-effective connection in the long run. But the public and officials in both states won’t know if DRBA officials continue to avoid considering a bridge.