Ferry slip upgrade planned in ‘21

Published 5:47 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2020

An important piece of Jamestown-Scotland Ferry infrastructure will receive $4.19 million in upgrades.

Work is expected to begin next fall to modernize the ferry slips on the Surry County and Jamestown sides of the river. The funding to improve the facility, which is operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, came through a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration.

All of the funding awarded to VDOT will be used to modernize dolphins, which are pilings that guide the ferry into the slip, according to Wes Ripley, who is the department’s ferry facility manager. The existing pilings are wood; the new pilings will be made of a composite material instead. The new pilings are stronger and will last much longer once they’re driven into place. The project is slated to begin in September 2021.

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“Even though the money has been announced, we don’t have it yet,” Ripley said. “Then there’s a long process that goes into planning one of these projects with environmental concerns and all the permitting that you have to get.” Ripley said there are also environmental time-of-year restrictions that limit when work can take place.

The grant to VDOT is part of $47.5 million awarded to 12 ferry projects nationwide. The purpose of the competitive grant program is to improve safety, access and the reliability of public ferries. VDOT and the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation applied for the grant on behalf of the ferry system. About 100 people — 79 full-time and about 20 hourly employees — work for the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry. They run the system 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each vessel, which can carry anywhere from 50 to 70 cars, transports vehicles across the James River in a trip that typically takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Hundreds of people use the service everyday.

“We do have a rush hour for commuters,” Ripley said. “We have a rush in the morning from Surry going over to Jamestown, where there are more jobs, and then we have that again coming back in the afternoon.” The ferry is the only vehicle link on the river between the James River Bridge in Newport News and the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge upriver near Hopewell.

The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry is unique in Virginia, and an important transportation connection for Surry and Jamestown, Ripley said.

“There are a couple of small cable ferries up on the Northern Neck,” Ripley said, and the Hatton Ferry near Charlottesville is more of a tourist attraction. VDOT Commissioner Stephen Brich echoed that sentiment.

“The Jamestown-Scotland Ferry system is a vital transportation option in the Hampton Roads region, helping hundreds of residents, visitors and tourists get to the places they need to be,” Brich said in a statement. “This support will help ensure our ferry passengers have a safe and positive experience each time they travel.”

Ripley said the COVID-19 pandemic reduced ferry traffic significantly, down about 70% to 80% of normal. “For the past maybe five or six years, we’ve been doing about 950,000 vehicles a year,” Ripley said. The system’s busiest year was 2007, when more than 1 million vehicles were served. That year also included Jamestown’s 400th anniversary celebration.

“Earlier this spring, the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry service was reduced to protect the health and safety of passengers and operators, while maintaining sustainable options for ferry users during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Emily Wade, a VDOT spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement. “No further reductions of service were required, and the ferry started phasing back to normal operations on May 15.”

“Ferry staff continue to practice social distancing when possible and take extra precautions,” the statement continued. “This includes cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces (such as handrails and door knobs) at least three times per shift.”

However, passengers are asked to stay in their vehicles for the duration of the trip, and restrooms and salon areas on all the ferries remain closed.