WATA Receives $2.7 Million Federal Grant for Use on Ferry Pocahontas

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The "Pocahontas" has been in service since 1995 and can carry 70 vehicles. The new boat, which will replace an older boat, will likely look similar to the "Pocahontas." (Photo courtesy VDOT)
The “Pocahontas” has been in service since 1995 and can carry 70 vehicles. The new boat, which will replace an older boat, will likely look similar to the “Pocahontas.” (Photo courtesy VDOT)

Ferry service across the James River is getting an upgrade thanks to a federal grant.

The Williamsburg Area Transit Authority received a federal grant totaling nearly $2.7 million, to be used for upgrades to the Pocahontas, one of four boats in the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry fleet. The grant comes from the federal Map-21 Discretionary Passenger Ferry Grant Program.

While the ferry is operated by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the grant was awarded to WATA specifically.

VDOT spokeswoman Laurie Simmons said only local transit authorities are eligible to receive grants from the program, and WATA’s use of the ferry to transport buses from James City County to the Southside motivated them to designate the funds for use on the ferry.

The Pocahontas has a notorious reputation among commuters for its frequent breakdowns. Simmons said the ferry’s regular need for maintenance stemmed from its age. While Pocahontas entered service in the Historic Triangle in the 1990s, its service life dates back to the 1970s, and it is difficult to find replacements for its aged parts.

“Everybody knows — including us — how much the Pocahontas is out,” Simmons said.

With WATA acting as the pass-through agent to fund the repairs, Simmons said Pocahontas will receive new engines and drive systems, increasing its reliability and making service on the James River more regular. Simmons added the repairs and upgrades would make Pocahontas more friendly to the environment.

Simmons said VDOT expected work on the boat to begin in early 2017, and would adjust the ferry schedule and workload to make up for Pocahontas’ extended absence from the ferry rotation.

Pocahontas received a new environmentally friendly diesel generator in January at a cost of $500,000.

VDOT announced plans in October 2014 to add a fourth vessel to the ferry fleet, replacing the Virginia, a 28-car ferryboat that has been in service since it was built in 1936. Pocahontas is the largest vessel in the fleet, able to carry 70 vehicles at a time.

The ferry runs 24 hours per day, 365 days a year, with abbreviated schedules on certain holidays.