The future of fast ferries

Flying home to Shelter Island, N.Y., after a week in Mobile, Ala., I realized that I had just witnessed what the future holds for fast ferries in the U.S. Fast ferries now offer new capabilities that allow water transportation to compete successfully with highway travel.

I had just climbed around Austal USA’s nearly completed 248-passenger Lake Express fast ferry. The ferry, which also has room for 46 cars, will operate on Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich. It will begin operations on June 1.

But my real business in Mobile was to attend public meetings on the reintroduction of passenger ferry services to serve urban, suburban, and rural communities around Mobile Bay.

Compared to the Lake Express LLC project, the Mobile Bay proposal envisions smaller Subchapter T (up to 149 passengers) vessels that operate at high speeds in order to compete with highway commutes around the bay.

The Great Lakes and Gulf Coast both have long histories of practical ferry operations, but slow ferry services lost their appeal during the 20th century as other modes were developed that could get travelers to their destinations quicker.

Now, fast ferries are the proposed mode to meet the needs of travelers that have limited choices to get around or across large bodies of water. The Lake Michigan and Mobile operations will serve a mix of commuters and tourists.

While the introduction of fast-ferry technology in the U.S. has lagged behind overseas developments, our regulatory regime has kept pace with the establishment of fast ferry operations. For example, the Coast Guard and the ferry industry, represented by the Passenger Vessel Association, have developed a useful analytical tool to determine appropriate crewing and operating procedures for individual high-speed vessels. 

Both the Lake Michigan and Mobile Bay services exemplify how advanced technology has helped in the development of new kinds of ferry operations that until recently were not considered possible. 

The irony is that the Great Lakes and Gulf Coast were well served in the past by the maritime technology of their day. Those steam-driven, displacement-hulled vessels were considered technologically advanced during their time.

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