2021 | Transportation

Report says return of White’s Ferry service might entail infrastructure improvements

New ferry owner says eminent domain is only solution, but landowner disagrees

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Photo by Dan Schere

A study on White’s Ferry released on Wednesday outlines scenarios in which the ferry could resume operation.

The options each call for infrastructure improvements to the ferry service, which has allowed people to travel across the Potomac River between Montgomery and Loudoun counties since the 1700s.

White’s Ferry ceased operation in December 2020 due to an ongoing legal dispute between the ferry operator and the owners of the estate Rockland Farm, which owns the land where the Virginia landing is (not to be confused with Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville).

Rockland Farm claimed in a lawsuit that White’s Ferry violated a 1952 agreement by replacing a retaining wall in 2004. Rockland Farm said the wall was on its property, but the ferry’s owners argued that the wall was part of the public right-of-way.

A Loudoun County judge ultimately ruled in November 2020 that the ferry could not land in Virginia.

In February, JK Moving Services owner Chuck Kuhn bought White’s Ferry in an attempt to restart the connection.

The Montgomery and Loudoun County departments of transportation announced earlier this year that they were jointly commissioning a study to look at ways to restart the ferry.

The study, conducted by the engineering firm AECOM and the consulting firm Stantec, looks at various scenarios for restarting the service:

  • “Restart” service immediately. This would mean the dispute with Rockland on the Virginia side would need to be resolved, the ferry would need to be inspected and workers might need to be hired. Service could start in a matter of weeks.
  • “Restore” ferry service. This would mean making short-term repairs to the landing ramp on the Virginia side, which might take 12 weeks before the ferry could resume operation.
  • “Enhance” ferry service. This would mean making long-term improvements to infrastructure, staffing, roadways, fare collection, vessel capacity and lighting.

The study found that the landings on both sides of the Potomac need improvements. On the Virginia side, the “curvature” of Whites Ferry Road is tight and there is “rubbing along the guard rail.”

“The hairpin bend down to the ferry ramp on the Virginia side could also be reviewed for long-term changes to soften the curve so that the Ferry could potentially accommodate larger vehicles,” the report stated.

On the Maryland side, some facilities are on National Park Service land, and a new maintenance and storage building need to be built to house fuel and parts.

According to the study, the “restore” alternative would have a $13 million total economic impact by 2040 and the “enhance” option would have an economic impact of $24.8 million by 2040.

The study also looked at use of the ferry in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data from 2018 in the study show that 6,700 Loudoun County residents commuted to Montgomery County for work out of 211,400 jobs that Loudoun County residents had – about 3% of the total.

Comparatively, 4,400 Montgomery County residents commuted to Loudoun County in 2018, which is about 0.9% of the total number with jobs, according to the study.

Without the ferry, travel time between Poolesville and Leesburg, Va., will increase by 11 minutes and 17 miles, according to the study. Additionally, the number of trips between the two counties is projected to be 40% higher in 2040 than in 2019.

Kuhn said in a statement Thursday that he appreciates the study that the two counties commissioned.

“It underscores White’s Ferry importance to the region and also revealed the difficulties in maintaining and making the ferry a private successful enterprise as the previous owners recognized,” he said in the statement. “We remain committed to making White’s Ferry operational and affordable for customers.”

Kuhn added in the statement that “the impasse has cost people time and money and added traffic and environmental woes to our community.”

Kuhn told Bethesda Beat in an interview Thursday that negotiations with the Rockland Farm owners have been unsuccessful.

“We have absolutely exhausted all reasonable attempts to come to an affordable agreement on securing the Virginia shoreline. Without the help of the county and state, White’s Ferry will never resume operation,” he said.

Kuhn said eminent domain — taking needed land — is the only way White’s Ferry can start up again.

Rockland Farm owner Libby Devlin said in a statement on Thursday that “Rockland stands willing to negotiate, but has yet to receive a constructive response to our six offers for use of the Virginia landing on our farm that we’ve given to the ferry owner and the counties.”

Devlin said in the statement that the owners are urging Loudoun County officials to take eminent domain off the table.

“Given that Rockland has also offered easement terms to both Loudoun and Montgomery counties, we believe the release of the study gives the localities the information needed to consider our proposal for an easement and respond,” she said in the statement. “In addition to the six offers we have proposed to the new owner and the counties to use the Virginia landing on Rockland farm, we continue to be open to ways forward that will restore service without delay in a way that is fair to all parties involved.”

The study examined three models of ownership for the ferry: maintaining the current model of private ownership and operation, public ownership and operation, and a “hybrid” option of public ownership and contracted operation.

Under the public ownership and operation model, both the “restore” and “enhance” service options would mean the ferry would still have an operating budget deficit in 2040.

However, under the hybrid ownership structure, both the “restore” and “enhance” service scenarios would have a net operating surplus by 2040.

Kuhn told Bethesda Beat Thursday that he and his wife knew from the time they purchased the ferry that it wasn’t a highly profitable operation, and that a “tremendous amount of capital infusion” is needed.

“We did not purchase the ferry to become rich. We purchased the ferry to help the ferry become operational again to help support the communities,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com