A federal employee who works at L’Enfant Plaza, Higgins is one of a handful of Alexandria residents who took advantage of an underutilized — and free — way to get to and from downtown Washington this fall. : a morning water taxi ride .
With the subway’s Yellow Line completely closed south of Reagan National Airport, transportation officials in Alexandria and across the region have been working to put in place alternatives for the approximately 8,400 affected weekday riders. They offered shuttles, free rides on the Virginia Railway Express, and even temporary membership in bike-sharing programs.
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But for Higgins — and a handful of other residents who join her on board — a crowded train carriage or a busy freeway doesn’t compare to a river cruise, another option added by planners. The water taxi got her to the dock in less than 35 minutes, from one platform to another, with landscapes as a bonus.
“On that buoy over there,” she exclaimed, “yesterday I saw a bald eagle over there!”
Thomas Hamed, a transportation planner with the Alexandria government, said the city’s efforts to subsidize morning trips to and from DC are aimed at winning over commuters like her.
“The Potomac is one of the busiest north-south arteries in the entire DMV region,” said Hamed, who helped lead the water taxi project. “It’s an opportunity for us to promote this as an alternative, especially at a time when people are looking for other options.”
Yet it’s a question that has long eluded DC-area officials, who for nearly a decade have sought to explore the viability of scheduled ferry service with limited progress. This year, with many commuters still telecommuting a few days a week – including Higgins – it may be a tougher sell.
On the upper deck during his ride this week, John Cella, dressed in a suit, sat with AirPods in his ears as he made his way to his position as a government lawyer in the Federal Triangle. Another Old Town resident, he first switched from the yellow line to VRE during the shutdown, but started trying the water taxi two weeks ago.
However, there are few of them. While he might be accompanied by a few dozen other commuters on the busiest or most pleasant mornings, he said, on others there might be as many crew members as passengers at edge.
“It’s a great way to start the morning where I’m not waiting on a train platform in the hustle and bustle,” said Cella, 36, who takes a scooter docked at the platform to complete her journey. “I’ll miss it once he’s gone, I’ll say that.”
Water taxis, operated by City Cruises DC to ferry tourists, normally begin operating at 10 a.m. with additional services to National Harbor.
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Until Blue and Green Line trains can be rerouted to cover some Yellow Line services in Virginia, the city is paying about $5,500 a week for two additional round trips during the morning rush hour. Free taxi rides officially run until October 27, although the city is working to extend these options until the end of the first shutdown phase, which has been pushed back to early November.
The boat leaves the wharf at 6:00 and 7:20 a.m. and returns from the Old Town at 6:40 and 8:00 a.m. Anyone who boards receives a red paper slip that gives them free entry for their return journey later in the day.
Mary Rinaldo, regional vice president of Mid-Atlantic at City Cruises, said there was more consistent ridership during the Metro shutdown in 2019, when trips to and from Alexandria were covered throughout the summer.
“It’s tough. It’s not a big company right now,” she said. “It might be one of those products where ‘if you build it, they’ll come.’ But because a lot of people don’t ride, it’s hard for us to do it consistently throughout the year.
In other markets where the company operates — like New York and Boston — it has been able to partner with transit agencies to develop robust commuter networks, Rinaldo added.
Will DC area residents commute by water?
Many DC area officials tried to make the same thing happen locally. A group of local governments, including Alexandria, commissioned a consultant’s report in 2014 that found daily water taxi service could operate on at least four possible routes through the Potomac, Anacostia and Occoquan rivers.
Operating costs would be around $6.4 million per year – not including several land-based expenses – but the short routes between Alexandria, Reagan National Airport, National Harbor and the District had sufficient demand to make it economically viable.
The Northern Virginia Regional Commission is expected to release a market analysis on the prospects for a ferry between the wharf, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and Woodbridge by the end of the month, said Robert Lazaro, group executive director.
Some potential customers, however, do not need convincing.
Hamed, the planner from Alexandria, said the boats generated “strong emotional excitement” for some regular riders. “The water taxi is the only subject I have ever presented on which the spectators spontaneously gave me a standing ovation,” he said.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Higgins was one of them.
On the previous stop, she and a handful of other Old Town residents ended up bumping into each other on the 8 a.m. water taxi in DC so often that they ended up forming a loose club of “boat friends”, who would go to happy hour or have dinner after they got home.
Despite the emptier boats these days, she still sometimes coordinates with one of her work colleagues to take their morning meeting together from the boat. (“Oh, they have wifi,” she said. “That’s awesome.”)
But the evening return to Alexandria from the dock, she said, could be even better. From her favorite bench, she can see both the United States Capitol and the Washington Monument, illuminated by the setting sun.