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Cost, traffic don’t support replacing Delaware Bay ferries with a bridge, by Thomas J. Cook

Cost, traffic don’t support replacing Delaware Bay ferries with a bridge, by Thomas J. Cook

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I noted with interest the recent Press editorial suggesting that planning for new ferry vessels to replace those in the current Cape May-Lewes Ferry (CMLF) fleet should be deferred and a bridge across Delaware Bay reconsidered. I say reconsidered because the Delaware River and Bay Authority, the umbrella agency for the ferry and other transportation assets, has studied additional bridge options across the Delaware Bay at least five previous times that I could find: 1969, 1980, 1990, 1997 and 2008.

The editorial notes correctly that the distance between Cape May and Lewes, Delaware — 17 miles — is slightly shorter than the distance covered by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel that runs between the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula and the Hampton Roads area in Virginia. (Coincidentally, the four original ferry vessels of the CMLF were purchased from the state of Virginia when the Bay Bridge-Tunnel replaced the ferry that had covered the same route.)

That’s where the similarities end. An economic case doesn’t exist to construct a bridge to replace the ferry and every previous study has recommended against a new crossing. First, our ferry connects two resort communities, the population of which, even in the summer, is dwarfed by the 1.8 million people in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach-Newport News metropolitan area. The second major difference is the road structure. While the ferry terminal in Cape May is a short distance from the Garden State Parkway, nothing comparable exists in Delaware. The two Lewes approach roads to the ferry, Freeman Highway and Cape Henlopen Drive, run two lanes apiece, and the nearest (3 miles away) multi-lane highway, Route 1, is more of a local highway rather than a through highway.

Now, let’s take a look at the cost. A previous study estimated the cost of a bridge at $1 billion. Assuming the historical rate of construction inflation over the past 20 years, the current price tag is in the $2 billion range, if we were bidding it today. We have every reason to believe that this number is low. The Bay Bridge-Tunnel’s current cost estimate for adding a third span for just four miles of its length is $5 to $8 billion. Even the lowest possible cost of a new bridge across the Delaware Bay is at least eight times the cost of three new ferry vessels. Without going into detail on the math, reasonable traffic projections for a new bridge would require a toll in the neighborhood of $82/vehicle just to service a 30-year debt, even at 0% interest! Then we would need a premium on top of that to cover maintenance, the costs of which could not be amortized, possibly pushing the vehicle toll to almost $400, or eight times our current peak season ferry vehicle fare. A bridge is not economically viable absent a massive increase in traffic that is extremely unlikely to occur for decades, if ever.

And, this analysis doesn’t even consider the environmental hurdles, potential community objections and the lengthy permitting process that would take many years to navigate. All in all, reconsideration of building a bridge across the bay is not supported by the available evidence. We believe strongly that the best path forward for Cape May, Lewes and neighboring communities is to continue to plan for replacement of ferry vessels that were constructed nearly 50 years ago.

Thomas J. Cook, of Kenton, Delaware, is executive director of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, operator of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

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