Where are all the Bay Area ferries?


I live in the Bay Area and sometimes have to drive for work down to Silicon Valley from my home in Albany, which is north of Berkeley.  The trip is around 43 miles, if memory serves, which is a fairly long distance for a commute, but not a drive that you’d think would regularly take two to two-and-a-half hours. And there are plenty of people who make the brutal drive down 880 to the Valley every day, and plenty more who shlep back and forth between the Valley and San Francisco, which is equally time-consuming and mind-numbing.  There are some public bus and train options, and of course some companies have shuttles along these routes.  But plenty of people can’t, or can’t easily, take advantage of either.

880 goes along the Bay for much of my drive and I’m always surprised, as I sit in stopped traffic with time to look around, to see how empty the Bay is.  It’s quite large – Wikipedia tells me it’s around 12 miles wide by around 60 miles long – and most days there’s just not much going on out there.  Which is crazy, when you think about it, because there would be seem to be a potentially huge demand for ferry service going both up and down, and across the bay.

I’m thinking about this now because I’m in Stockholm with my family on vacation.  Walking along the city’s waterfront, I’m struck not just by its beauty – which is considerable – but also by the number of ferries, mostly small, running both from the center to other areas of the city, and out to the hundreds of islands that fan from the city out into the Baltic.  No doubt because Stockholm is so cut through with waterways, ferry service, both for leisure and commute travelers, seems much more extensive here than back home.

There is some Bay Area commuter ferry service now.  The main routes are between Marin County, on the north side of the bay, and SF, and into the city from Oakland on its east side.  There is also fairly new ferry service from Oakland and Alameda, west of Oakland, and South San Francisco, which is a growing tech hub.  But there’s nothing from Berkeley and the area around it, further north along the East Bay, where a couple of hundred thousand people live, including me.  And there’s nothing that goes to the South Bay, which is where all the job growth is.  That’s crazy.

Why is the Bay Area ferry network so limited?  I suspect the problem is that service is controlled by a government agency – the curiously named Water Emergency Transportation Authority – whose leadership seems aware of the problem but not at all keen to solve it.  The above-linked SF Chronicle article quotes Nina Rannells, the agency’s director, as saying the Bay’s potential as a transit route is sadly “untapped” – but she adds that WETA’s network expansion plans are “always going to be…  fairly modest.”  Incredibly, in an area that’s among the richest in the world, where people pay through the nose to get from home to work, in bridge tolls, and BART, Caltrain, and bus fares, she cites the main obstacle as what the article’s author calls “the region’s limited transit dollars.”  It seems incredible that WETA couldn’t cover the costs of even a major expansion, through a combination of fare revenue and either bonds or, ideally, private investment in new terminals and boats, in return for a share of revenue, along perhaps with some mix of other considerations – maybe the agency could sell terminal naming rights, for example, or give investors free in-terminal and on-board advertising for a time, or some such.  The possibilities seem endless, if WETA’s leadership could only take off its public-agency blinders, to finding funding sources beyond tax revenue.

WETA’s website does run down some fairly ambitious expansion plans, including adding new terminals in Berkeley and Redwood City, at the eastern edge of the Valley.  On the Port of Redwood City site, there’s a more detailed rundown of terminal and service plans there, including a brief mention of what, to my mind, would be a key component of successful service – intermodal connections with local transit.  But again, the approach outlined in these plans is myopic, and destined for failure, or success only over a very long term.  WETA is clearly more interested in begging for public funding than in finding investment wherever it can be found.

Also problematic is WETA’s big-project bias.  Its plans focus on building new, big terminals to handle big boats, rather than using existing infrastructure and accommodating smaller craft – which could extend all the way down in size, I’d imagine, to water taxis transporting, say, ten or twelve passengers.  I realize big plans excite the imagination of politicians, and help sell bond issues and line up support from the public, as well as the contractors and unions who’ll benefit from expansion work and ongoing service.  But new service could be launched right now, using terminals that sit idle or barely used – in Redwood City, for example – using small boats or even big ones, such as the 150-passenger catamarans Google used, in its pilot employee shuttle-ferry project of earlier this year.

Perhaps the answer is new leadership at WETA.  Or perhaps WETA needs to work more actively with private companies that want to launch either employee-shuttle or public ferry service to supplement existing offerings.  Either way, WETA’s approach needs to change, or someone needs to get WETA out of the way.  Its current approach is leaving millions of us sitting in cars, taking far too long to get to and from work, wasting time and energy we could all better spend doing something more productive, and winding up far more beaten down, at the end of the day, than if we’d zipped to work on a ferry.

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