Elaine Thompson  /  AP
A Washington State Ferry emerges from a fog bank on Puget Sound near Bainbridge Island as the Olympic Mountains are seen between cloud banks last December.
updated 3/8/2004 1:27:20 PM ET 2004-03-08T18:27:20

In America, they say, the car is king. Getting Americans to use mass transit and help clear the air and the roadways is a perpetual goal of governments at all levels — one that perpetually falls short.

Over the past decade, however, from Boston to San Francisco, in Michigan, Georgia and in this New Jersey city situated across the Hudson from New York, ferry systems are bucking the trend, state and federal officials say, as more and more people get out of their cars and onto commuter ferries.

The growth in commuter ferries has not been without incident. Last year, a Staten Island ferry crashed into a pier, killing almost a dozen people. And over the weekend a water taxi capsized in Baltimore Harbor, killing one.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the nation’s ferry services expanded quickly in the decade from 1990 to 2000, ending the century carrying some 113 million passengers per year -– number that absolutely no one had predicted when the 90s began.

Technology and physics
The reasons behind the unexpected resurrection of this age-old technology are many.

In some cases, as in the terrorist attacks in New York that destroyed a commuter train line that crossed under the Hudson River from New Jersey, commuters had to switch, at least until the new PATH World Trade Center line opened in November.

Something similar thing happened in Boston, where delays and cost overruns in the largest urban transportation project ever undertaken in America — the so called “big dig” — have led to such havoc on the streets that some people happily switched to ferries.

Another factor, according to Robert Gorman, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, is the changing face of the urban waterfront in America. Beginning in the late 1980s, the old wharves and dock regions in cities like Boston, Baltimore, Miami, New York and Seattle, after decades of decline, began to be viewed as attractive sites for redevelopment.

“Ten to 20 years ago, many ferry services did not exist, and there was a pollution problem. But water quality has greatly improved, and the waterfront became a desirable place for work and leisure,” said Gorman.

Reviving the waterfront
In New York City, once one of the nation’s most important passenger and cargo ports, commercial shipping moved away from Manhattan and the former shipping hub of Hoboken across the river in New Jersey. These areas were redeveloped as residential, recreation and business districts, opening the way and the demand for new ways to get to them.

Ferries themselves have become faster, too. These high-speed ferries expanded the range of the services. Since catamaran and hydrofoils began augmenting traditional diesel "mono-hull" boats, longer and longer commuter services are being offered.

One ferry line in New York operates fast-moving catamaran ferries for a long-distance commute from the New Jersey shore into Lower Manhattan. The "Seastreak" ferries are capable of traveling at 42 knots (48 miles per hour). This turns a 35-mile commute — often a grueling 90-minute trip by car — into less than an hour. There is talk, too, of fast services from outer suburbs in Long Island and even Connecticut.

In Seattle, the nation's most extensive system of ferries is owned and operated by Washington state, serving commuters and the residents of an archipelago of islands that dot Puget Sound. Because of geography and a decision in the 1950s that building bridges between these far-flung islands would be too financially and environmentally burdensome, Washington State Ferries are probably the most essential of all the ferry services in the country. Between 1977 and 1997, ridership grew from 4 million to 26 million passengers a year.

"Especially on a picture postcard day — when Mount Rainier and Mount Baker are sparkling in all their glory — but really any day, it's a great way to get to work," says Reed Price, who commutes to Seattle each day from Bainbridge Island. "As I cross the waves of Elliott Bay, I'm reminded of things more important than my petty concerns and beauty more spectacular than that humans can manufacture."

Still, in Seattle, Boston or New York, traffic appears to be the main reason ferries have taken off again. Roads and bridges are packed with rush hour traffic in many cities. In places like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, where crossing a waterway is part of the reality of reaching downtown areas, the term rush hour really isn't relevant as traffic flows remain heavy from early morning into the evening.

In some ways, those cities are lucky to have the option of ferries. Many of the worst traffic spots in the nation, according to the American Highway Users Alliance, are in cities where water-borne solutions may not be an option.

Clean or not?
One area where ferries have not exceeded expectations, however, is in environmental performance. Modern ferries tend to be noisy and certainly spew diesel fumes into the air. Passengers can be slobs, too, throwing coffee cups and other debris into the water.

Many advocates, including the New York Waterway Corp., the city's dominant private commuter ferry operator, say that the pollution caused by ferries is vastly outweighed by the number of cars that are not on the road as a result.

Yet opinions vary on the topic. Capt. Bill Sheehan, who runs the watchdog group Hackensack Riverkeeper in suburban New Jersey, notes that new ferry terminals are popping up on sites that might otherwise have been allowed to revert to wetlands now that heavy industry has abandoned the lower Hudson River area.

There is also a concern about the churning up of contaminated silt. Powerful ferries can recirculate pollutants that had been relatively inert in the riverbed, effecting the food chain. And, he notes, wakes in harbors created by ferries can erode the shoreline.

Overall, however, Sheehan and others concerned with the environment say the ferries are a net plus. "I'm happy to see people coming back to the harbor," he says.

Kaori Kaneko is an intern at MSNBC.com

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