Ferry fanatics hope $400m expansion triples ridership to 12m
- Published Saturday, January 3, 2009, by the Contra Costa Times
New era in ferry travel planned for the Bay
By Denis Cuff and Janis Mara
Contra Costa Times
Bay Area residents cherished the rush of riding ferry boats across
the region's blue highways before eight major bridges spanned Bay
Then, ferries' popularity surged after accidents or earthquakes
disabled bridges or blocked highways.
But when the bridges spanned the water, public interest in ferries
Bay Area transportation managers want to rekindle the ferry fervor,
proposing a $400 million expansion to add seven routes on the Bay
and to triple ridership to 12 million a year.
Commuters in Richmond, Berkeley, Antioch, Hercules, Martinez and
Redwood City could be hopping 31 new ferries to San Francisco by
the end of the decade.
"Ferries are going to be another key component of transportation in
the Bay Area," said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, former
chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee and a current member
of a key Senate budget committee on transit funds. "I expect more
money for transportation, and I expect ferries to be part of the
transformation of our transportation system."
Ferries could ease highway congestion, cut smog and global warming
gases and reduce commuter stress by luring drivers onto what transit
experts call more relaxing, scenic boats.
An invigorated ferry system also would provide essential emergency
help to move firefighters, police, medical workers and stranded
commuters if an earthquake paralyzes highways and public
transportation systems, supporters say.
"I don't think we've optimized the use of the Bay (for commuting),"
said Jon Stanley, executive director of the Water Emergency
Transportation Authority, the agency created a year ago to coordinate
Bay Area ferry planning. "We're trying to get people out of their
cars and onto the ferry, even if it's not huge numbers."
Recent legislation, Senate Bill 796, gives the agency the mandate
and the charter to coordinate emergency cross-Bay transportation in
the event of a disruption, such as a bridge going down.
The big issues
Ferry service expansion faces many barriers. The authority does not
know where it will get all the money to develop and operate the
expanded service, although agency managers expect to get $250 million
in the next decade from the Proposition 1B state transportation bond
measure voters passed in 2006.
Some skeptics say ferries attract too few riders to justify the costs.
"Ferries are fun. Buses are boring, but they move more people. Most
people can walk to a bus," said Robert Cheasty, an East Bay attorney
who is president of Citizens for East Shore Parks. "Most ferries
fail because of economic reasons. Ridership is never enough."
Land-use conflicts also can complicate ferry plans, which often call
for big parking lots on valuable shoreline property and terminals
placed over environmentally sensitive waters.
The Albany City Council recently opposed a ferry site in that city
-- one of four alternative locations in Albany and Berkeley --
because of concerns for the environment and the popular Eastshore
State Park on the shoreline of Contra Costa and Alameda counties.
The city spelled out its criticism in a comment letter it submitted
on the environmental report for the proposed terminal.
The site for the Albany or Berkeley terminal is scheduled to be
selected by June 2009, and service to San Francisco is to begin in
A planned eight-mile ferry service between Oakland's Jack London
Square and South San Francisco is expected to begin in late 2010,
after a new terminal is built at Oyster Point in South San Francisco.
Environmental planning has begun on proposals for service from
Richmond to San Francisco and from Martinez and Antioch to San
Francisco. Planning has not begun on three other proposed ferry
routes -- from Redwood City to San Francisco and the East Bay; from
Hercules to San Francisco; and from San Francisco to Treasure Island.
Antioch and Martinez leaders view ferry service as a way to
reinvigorate their cities' long-struggling downtowns, located
near ferry terminal sites used before bridges were built.
Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder said a ferryboat terminal would go hand
in hand with efforts to attract retail business to the downtown.
A ferry linked Martinez and Benicia from 1847 until 1962, when the
Benicia Bridge opened. Since the 1990s, the city several times
considered a ferry service, but the plans always fell through.
Schroder said he believes Martinez has two advantages this time --
as the county seat, the city could play a key role in recovery from
a natural disaster or terrorist attack; and a ferry terminal may
stimulate economic development in the city's ailing downtown.
"I truly believe that it's going to happen this time," he said.
But Schroder acknowledged challenges to resurrecting ferry service
in Martinez, including the considerable distance from the planned
parking lot to the ferry terminal site and the terminal's distance
from Highway 4.
Ridership can be a challenge, too.
Richmond had a ferry service to San Francisco run by the Red and
White Fleet from September 1999 until November 2000, when it was
discontinued for lack of passengers. The service averaged 45 riders
a day when it needed 200 to be financially viable.
Speed may have been a factor, Stanley said. The ferry was no speedboat
at about 11 knots; it took about 45 minutes to reach San Francisco.
The new agency's ferry clocks 25 knots and would take an estimated
Some say that faster boats and public subsidies do not guarantee
ridership will ever gain critical mass.
"I can see (the ferries being) an adjunct system, but I don't see
the lavish spending they're talking about," said Cheasty, of Citizens
for East Shore Parks. "One of the worst things they could do is spend
a lot of money on a ferry system and not get the ridership and then
have to close down."
In other words: What if taxpayers spend $400 million on a ferry
system and nobody rides?
Stanley is confident the system can attract riders. The key, he said,
is making it competitive with motor vehicles and BART, with travel
time, comfort and cost considered.
"The overall commute time in the Bay Area is expected to increase
about 25 percent from now to 2025. The commute over the bridge to
San Francisco from Oakland will slow from an average of 34 minutes
now to 55 minutes in 2025, according to a study by the Metropolitan
Transportation Commission," Stanley said.
Marilyn Sandifur rode the ferry from Larkspur to a San Francisco
job in the 1990s.
"It was very refreshing," Sandifur said. "You always could find a
seat. I remember a jazz band playing on board Friday nights."
Riding the ferry during the Christmas holiday season was her favorite.
"You would see those Christmas lights on the shoreline on a crisp
winter night. Nothing could beat that."
Staff writer Lisa White contributed to this story. Reach Denis Cuff
at 925-943-8267 or <dcuff@...>. Reach Janis Mara at
For details about the plan for expanded ferry service, visit