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Sailing to the Office This Summer


Commuters Molly Jenna and Karen Buck as the Potomac Water Taxi pulls into the District Wharf. (Photo by Orrin Konheim)

Alexandria’s Summer Metro Shutdown is taking many commuters up the Potomac River…

By Orrin Konheim

ALEXANDRIA,VA–From an unnaturally empty Alexandria waterfront, a yellow ferry set off northward along the Potomac River with 22 passengers precisely at 8:25 a.m. Despite the idyllic view of a steadily approaching Washington, D.C., however, 19 of these Potomac Water Taxi passengers were on their way to work. Like thousands throughout the area, they are affected by the summer shutdown at all of Alexandria’s Metro stations, and have sought alternatives to get to the office.

“It’s infuriating,” said Alex Griffin who commutes daily from Huntington. “I mean, two lines of the metro are shut down.”

Griffin has made note that the Metro-allocated shuttle from Huntington Metro Station to King Street arrives at around 8:15 a.m. whereas the eastbound trolley along King Street leaves at around the same time. She has managed to get a ride from her husband on days when she doesn’t exactly make it but thinks “the system needs some tweaks.”

In case you missed it, every Metro Station in Alexandria is closed this summer for the $300-400 million 2019 Metrorail Platform Improvement Project. Even with a year’s lead time and the capacity for enhancements that comes with $2.7 million in grant money from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit, the city has treated the massive movement of people like a major storm – literally.

The transportation corridor covered by these stations moves 17,000 people daily and even under best- case scenarios, WMATA’s calculations show public transportation options will only be able to mitigate 97 percent of that traffic. This includes includes filling the roads to capacity.

Taking a Boat to Work

For many the Potomac Water Taxi, which expanded service to include the morning rush hour during the shutdown, is a welcome respite. The half-hour ride, that now operates from 6:40 a.m. to 9:20 a.m., takes commuters from the Alexandria Marina to the District’s Wharf and connects to a shuttle, which takes commuters to the L’Enfant Plaza station.

It was the second commute by sea for John Prible, who usually drives in on the George Washington Parkway.

“It’s 30 minutes longer to get to work and it’s just non-stop,” Prible said of the boat ride. “I like it. I’m not sure it’s gonna be shorter necessarily, but at least I’m not stuck in traffic.”

City residents and people working in Alexandria are eligible for partial reimbursement by the City of Alexandria when using the water taxi.. A commuter round trip regularly costs $10 daily, and with the reimbursement is $2 daily. A 2019 commuter pass will cost $199 with a $100 reimbursement.

SEE HOW TO GET REIMBURSED for Water Taxi Commute

Together with the region’s other stakeholders, Metro has engaged in a public relations campaign, including hiring roughly 120 people to hand out flyers at stations. WMATA and its partners have promoted alternatives and fostered the expansion of not just Potomac Water Taxi but existing commuter lines such as Greyhound and VRE; car and van pools; bike share; and the city’s dockless scooter fleets. In addition, Alexandria’s DASH bus system has expanded their fleet by a dozen and hasn’t ruled out more expansion.

“Our regional planning efforts have been ongoing and meticulous… and we are hopeful that the message of early preparation and familiarizing yourself with the various travel options has reached many who will be impacted by the platform reconstruction this summer,” said Anna Nissinen of Fairfax County’s Department of Transportation.

The Potomac Water Taxi is a beneficiary of this publicity campaign. Entertainment Cruises purchased the Potomac RiverBoat Company in 2016 to add the water taxis to a D.C. fleet that primarily included sightseeing cruises. The fleet expanded last year with four high-speed, low-wake vessels for morning commutes.

“It’s fair to say that our guests use the Potomac Water Taxi for a variety of reasons…. From a sightseeing perspective it’s a quick and enjoyable way to travel,” Entertainment Cruises spokesperson Nicola McShane in an e-mail. “Guests can avoid the traffic and the crowds while they soak up the historic shoreline as they travel from point to point.”

A Quiet Marina in the Morning

Aside from the morning shuttle, there’s not much happening at the Alexandria waterfront. Restaurants and businesses are largely locked up, and even the city-managed Torpedo Factory Art Center is closed until 10 a.m.

“In our experience, most visitors like to relax and sleep a little later on vacation and so their timetable to be out and about is often later than residents and employees,” said Visit Alexandria CEO Tom Kaiden. “That said, anyone getting up early in the morning and visiting the waterfront often has a quiet and beautiful time to see the sunrise, marina and waterfront. Later in the day there is plenty of activity going on, so leaving this part of the day unprogrammed has always felt like the right thing to do.”

Entertainment Cruises has reported a 30-40 percent increase across all routes compared to this time last year. As to whether the commuting schedule along the water taxi after the shutdown ends, that’s up to the city.

“This demonstrates there is a real appetite for extending peak time services,” McShane said. “Like all our water taxi routes serving the greater D.C. area, we are continuously assessing performance and demand to establish future schedules; however, the ultimate decision and approval to extend the services beyond the shut-down lies with our city partners.”

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