Bike Fairies to Save River Ferries?

November 14, 2010

Yesterday’s Courant brought the disheartening news that Connecticut’s storied river ferries may be on the budgetary chopping block. This is a bad thing, not only, as the article mentions, because many people use the ferries in their daily commutes, but because the ferries remind us of our surroundings and our history.

I have marveled before at how quickly one can go from city to country in Connecticut. All you have to do is walk out on the old railroad bridge north of the Bulkeley Bridge for an example of how wondrously cheek-by-jowl the city and country live in Connecticut, especially along the river: Look south, and there is downtown Hartford, well lit and buzzing with cars and trucks.

New England's Rising Star

But turn north, and you see a view that people crossing the river have probably been seeing for 1,000 years.

The mighty Connecticut, looking north from railroad bridge, Hartford

But in a busy life, all highways and sprawl and long commutes, it is easy to become disconnected from the routes we traverse. Riding in a car between Hartford and East Hartford, you can’t even see the mighty river you are crossing. So the existence of ferries, on which we make a trip not much different from what people in Connecticut have been doing for 300 years, is important.

All of which got me to thinking: I know that the Rocky Hill – Glastonbury used to be powered by a horse on a treadmill (memorialized in lovely fashion by local art and design genius, Brian Cook). Some interwebs research revealed to me that a world-class athlete can sustain an output of about .54 horsepower for an hour on a track bicycle, and that a fit cyclist can exceed one horsepower of output on a road bicycle for a brief period. That tells me that two relatively fit cyclists, working together, should be able to generate one horsepower for ten minutes at a stretch, which should be adequate to power a barge across the Connecticut river.

Right now, the Rocky Hill – Glastonbury ferry is pushed by a tugboat:

The Cumberland pushes the Glastonbury - Rocky Hill ferry
(Here, you can see the tug nudging against the ferry.)

According to the Courant story, the yearly operating budget of this ferry is $250,000. I suppose that includes maintenance, insurance, salaries for maybe four or five employees (the ferry runs about 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and there are two people working at all times – the tug captain and the ferryman), and fuel. Surely, significant savings could be realized if the tug and the fuel were entirely removed from the equation, right?

Here’s the dream: Create a non-profit organization to run the ferry. Rig up the barge to run on the power of two bicycles. If you pay cyclists $15/hour to drive the ferry and you need two cyclists for 12 hours a day, nine months a year, that’s $97,200 of wage costs. It could be a part-time job or something that high school and college students do, or bike nerds like me could volunteer periodically. Either way, I’m guessing there’s a significant savings over pushing the barge with a tug. But then, the non-profit works to develop interest in the ferry and in river history, and to get sponsorships from local businesses. The barge itself could have historical displays for passengers to look at during the brief trip. On weekends, there could be special events with historical talks, or river tours, and the barge could be rented out for special events like weddings and dinners.

If the fares on the boat raise at least $66,000 (22,000 cars, per the Courant, at $3 each), and the wages for ferry bikers are about $100,000, I figure the state should be able to pay the non-profit $100,000 a year to run the service, and if fundraising efforts were especially successful, money could be returned to the state, fares could be reduced, or more related services (like riverbank clean-up, more historical displays and tours, etc.) could be added.

Is this a crazy pipe dream? I think the money would work out. What mostly concerns me is whether it’s really possible for two cyclists to move a 50-foot barge across a quarter-mile of river while carrying three cars. Still, I think this could be awesome and doable, and honestly, who wouldn’t want to come see what would be, if my Googling is correct, THE ONLY BICYCLE-POWERED RIVER FERRY IN THE WORLD?

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2 Responses to “Bike Fairies to Save River Ferries?”

  1. jamesplankton said

    Brilliant idea! I’d guess some passengers would be willing to help pedal, too, for the novelty if nothing else. Make it happen!

  2. Have you, perhaps, forwarded this to relevant people?

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