High speed ferry could ease Panama West traffic

By Franklin Castrellón

Trade and maritime industry sectors consulted by The Bulletin on the possibility of establishing a high-speed ferry service between Panama West and the capital city to relieve land traffic jams during peak hours, agreed that “at least the initiative deserves a feasibility study by the government”.

They pointed out that the studies should focus on potential demand and economic viability, including various alternatives for the development of such a project, as was done with those operating between Buenos Aires and Montevideo and between Gourock and Dunoon, in Scotland and the one that is projected on the Potomac River, in Northern Virginia, United States.

Ferries are a common way of transport in the Azores Islands.

Ferries are a common way of transport in the Azores Islands.

In Northern Virginia, Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates issued, in July 2015, the results of a market study that revealed that there is a “sustainable market” for a high-speed passenger ferry service on the Occoquan, Potomac and Anacostia rivers, In Northern Virginia. The ferry will provide service within about five years to the metropolitan region of the American capital.

The study found that shorter connections (between Alexandria and Washington, D.C.) are economically viable without the need for a government subsidy.

In South America a ferry service has operated for several years with the world’s highest speed ferries – 58 knots, equivalent to 107 kilometers per hour – between Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The Francisco de Buquebus, with capacity for 1,000 passengers and about 150 cars, covers the 200 kilometer crossing of the Rio de la Plata in just over two hours.

“An option such as that developed in Argentina could well be implemented in Panama, which is expected to be justified by market studies,” added a source at the Panama Chamber of Shipping, pointing out that – perhaps because of high demand and a reasonable rate – it is necessary to subsidize its operation.

Much older successful ferry services operate in major cities such as Hong Kong, Sydney, Istanbul, Kadikoy (Greece) and New York (see The Bulletin, January 9, 2017, “The Hidden Highway is in the coastal sea”).

Passenger ferry in New York.

Passenger ferry in New York.

Asked about this, the President of the Panama Chamber of Shipping (CMP) Rommel Troetsch, considered that the high speed ferry “is a very interesting option that should be available to citizens, due to problems with urban traffic and the large number of people from West Panama who work in Panama City.”

He said that urban traffic is collapsing, and no major projects are seen to solve the crisis. However, he considered that “you have to do the numbers to see the viability as appropriate docks are needed in both West Panama and the capital city itself.”

Rodolfo Sabonge, a former director of the Panama Railroad under State ownership from 1981 to 1984, and currently an international consultant, agreed with Troetsch that a feasibility study is required, but noted that his experience on the subject is that rail passenger projects require State subsidies.

If a study recommends it, Troetsch visualized the scheme of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) whereby the State would provide the terminal docks and the private sector maritime transport and operation. In the APP scheme, the State delegates the function or provision of the service to a particular operator, but retains the essential responsibility for the quality of the service and a shareholding.

However, even Panama lags behind when it comes to PPP legislation. Joint ventures are considered to be a hybrid between PPPs and privatizations, as are most of the transshipment ports, with the exception of Panama Ports Co., where the State holds only 10% of the share value, and has barely received $1 million in 19 years of operation of the ports of Balboa and Cristobal.

Troetsch went further and noted that the terminal in the capital for a fast ferry could well be located on the Coastal Strip, and that of Panama West in the most strategic places to give access to the largest number possible of the traveling population of that region. “Undoubtedly, this is an option that deserves to be reviewed by the government.” It was important, he warned, that its development and operation should be coordinated with the Ministry of Public Works, the Transit and Land Transport Authority and other entities to ensure a perfectly coordinated service.

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