CA: Is the Bay Area entering a 'golden age of ferries'?

Jan. 23, 2024
In one version of the ferry's future, the service could help connect a new era of housing being built on the waterfront in Oakland, Treasure Island, and San Francisco.

Jan. 22—On a recent weekday, Mark Lyons sat on the top deck of the San Francisco Bay Ferry as it sailed through the Oakland Estuary. The sun reflected off the water, the bay as still as a pond, as container ships and marshes framed the city skyline.

Lyons, an Oakland resident, is a typical ferry passenger. He doesn't take it regularly, but enjoys it when he does, traveling with a cocktail in his hand and the wind at his back. At the same time, he says, it's rarely the most convenient or efficient transportation. He has concerns about the price.

"It's an incredibly nice way to travel," Lyons said. "But it's not totally there yet."

In one version of the ferry's future, the service could help connect a new era of housing being built on the waterfront in Oakland, Treasure Island, and San Francisco. The San Francisco Bay could again be seen as a boon rather than a barrier to transportation. Monique Moyer, vice chair of the board of directors that oversees the ferry system, has said the region is entering another "golden age of ferries."

But hard decisions loom. For years, the San Francisco Bay Ferry has maintained a reputation as a luxury transit option, the "bougie" way to travel — a cruise rather than a commute. Now, as the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) attempts to reset that reputation, a question remains: Can the ferry overcome its structural challenges and become the go-to mode of transportation across the bay?

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, transit use in the Bay Area has shifted immensely. Gone are the throngs of office workers and morning commuters. To adapt to that new paradigm, WETA has lowered fares, provided more direct routes to San Francisco, and adopted schedules that favor off-peak travel. The cost of the ferry is now comparable to BART for most East Bay locations and cheaper than driving across any major bridges in the Bay Area.

"In the past, the ferry has been seen as a boutique premium transit option, but that's really not fair," said Thomas Hall, the public information and marketing manager for San Francisco Bay Ferry. "These are million-dollar views on a $4.60 ferry ride."

Riders seem to approve of the ferry's changes. The service has an industry-leading 99% customer satisfaction rating, according to a survey conducted by an outside engineering company, and 18% of riders cite affordability as their reason for riding the ferry, an 11% increase from 2017. According to WETA survey data, the share of passengers with household incomes below $50,000 has doubled since fare reductions were instituted. Weekend ridership has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and weekdays are at about 60%.

"You don't have to park, you don't have to fight traffic, you don't have to be smushed up against people," said Terry Winckler, an Alameda resident who commuted on the ferry to San Francisco for three years. "To me, it's like a dream. Why wouldn't everybody take the ferry?"

Although the fare reductions have recently been made permanent, the federal relief funds that helped support WETA through the pandemic will run dry by the end of this fiscal year. Over 60% of the ferry system's funding comes from fare revenue. Neither the state of California nor the federal government regularly fund continuing operations of transit systems.

That leads transit in the Bay Area to fight over the same funding pie. Measure 3, a regional bridge toll, has provided a much-needed boost to the ferry system going forward. But not everybody believes that ferries deserve the money, or that they should be the priority for transportation investment in a region with limited funding sources.

"WETA has great customer satisfaction ratings, but it's a little like saying the Four Seasons has higher customer service ratings than the Holiday Inn," said Nick Josefowitz, a former WETA board member. "No kidding — when you're spending so much more on something it's going to be a lot better."

The ferry service is one of the more expensive transit systems to run on a per-rider basis. Because of terminal locations, ferries often follow a park-and-ride model, where people drive to the ferry terminal, as opposed to getting there using other forms of public transportation.

Ferry terminals could also struggle to serve as a catalyst for housing like a BART station can. A planned ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina is a mile from the nearest house and bisected by one of the biggest highways in the region.

Meanwhile, ferries are not free from environmental concerns. According to Josefowitz, the ferry from Richmond to San Francisco generates more climate emissions per passenger than if each person were to drive to San Francisco alone in their cars.

"We're facing a transit funding crisis, and we need to make difficult decisions," Josefowitz said. "We cannot continue to run all the transit services we ran before the pandemic, nor should we. We now have very different needs as a region."

WETA is working to address some of those concerns, and Hall disagreed with the characterization of ferries as a less environmentally friendly or overly costly option. He said the agency's number one priority is to electrify its fleet. In November, the agency announced it had received a $16 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration in their effort to transition its fleet to zero-emission propulsion technology, a half-billion dollar initiative. Fully electric ferries are expected to be in service within the next two years.

To WETA Executive Director Seamus Murphy, an effective, electrified ferry system is key to meeting the future needs of the Bay Area.

"The fastest neighborhoods in our region in terms of growth are all happening on the waterfront, places that are really hard for traditional transit modes to access," Murphy said. "If we don't send water transit and provide a clean transit connection, then they're going to use their cars to do their travel instead."

Murphy agreed that, in the end, there is no silver bullet transit solution. Ian Griffiths, the policy director for Seamless Bay Area, a transit advocacy nonprofit, believes ferries are best suited as one element of an integrated, efficient transportation network.

"We want to get as many people on ferries as possible, not at the cost of other transit, but in partnership with other transit," Griffiths said. "Ultimately, allow people to live life without a car."

For Winckler, in his three years riding the ferry, it was like being exposed to a new world. He became interested in container shipping, Bay wildlife, the rhythms of the weather, the people of the boat. It felt like a lesson in where he was from.

"It's a world you would never have access to, days with wind and rain or glorious blue skies," Winckler said. "If all you did was take the ferry, that would be a fantastic day."

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