Even though the ship long since left the dock, rah-rah coverage of the fast ferry still runs at full steam. Rochester’s booster-class cabins are full, and City Hall’s fiscal salvage operation --- not quite like raising the Titanic, but a real challenge --- rivals the terror war in terms of grabbing headlines.
But no local news outlet, with the exception of Frank Regan’s excellent rochesterenvironment.com, has peered into the abyss. I mean the ferry’s environmental impact. That’s where some strong light is needed. Plus a calculator.
I recently worked up some back-of the-envelope figures on one crucial angle: fuel economy. According to data released by the operator, the ferry gets 42.3 gallons per nautical mile (1.15 statute miles). So the one-way, 87-nautical-mile trip from here to Toronto consumes around 3,680 gallons of marine diesel fuel.
That’s a lot of fuel in absolute terms. But the real issue is how this level of consumption compares to what Toronto-bound travelers using other travel modes might use. Do the math: If 220 cars (the ferry’s carrying capacity, minus a relatively few trucks and buses) getting an average of 20 mpg made the 180-mile one-way road trip to Toronto on their own power, they’d consume 1,980 gallons total. Roughly half of what the ferry uses.
Well, nobody ever claimed plowing a boat the size of an urban neighborhood through unwilling waters would win the efficiency prize. But it’s reasonable to expect that transportation policy will favor environmentally sound projects. And if we ever do a state-of-the-art regional transportation plan, such projects will be the only ones on the map.
Other relevant comparisons: The ferry, running at capacity (a vain hope; the boat’s regularly been about half empty), comes in at about 20 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel. According to a range of official sources here and in the UK, intercity passenger trains get from around 50 pmpg to more than 100 pmpg. Buses and (alas) cars are much more fuel-efficient than ferries. Other environmental angles need to be looked at, of course: land-use, noise, tire wear, etc. Safety data should be factored in, too. But let’s face it, the fast ferry, largely because of the energy needed to move its immense payload, has created another rolling environmental deficit.
I haven’t yet looked in depth at the pollution issue. But here again, the ferry comes up short. Not only does it use much more fuel than competing modes; it uses dirtier fuel (i.e. marine diesel), and it’s very light on anti-pollution technology.
Does the travel time saved make it all worthwhile? Not remotely. A high-speed rail service, or even a moderately fast one, could cut the trip to well below the ferry’s two-and-a-quarter hour optimum. Conversely, if the distance saved were substantial enough --- as with the ferry between Bar Harbor, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, whose saltwater route cuts 75 percent off a 600-mile road trip --- the calculus could be different.
But in the Lake Ontario lowlands, there’s no way around it: Rail rules. Or it should.
Hypocrisy alert: I just may take the ferry trip for fun. Enviro-writers do what they gotta do. I’ll report on the experience. And please post your own thoughts on this issue. Hey, it’s the only fast ferry we’ve got. Let’s keep its dark side in the public eye to balance the PR.