Public Comment

Commentary: Another Step Closer to the Berkeley Ferry

By Paul Kamen
Tuesday March 13, 2007

Those who object to a new ferry terminal along the Albany or North Berkeley shoreline can relax. After last Thursday’s scoping session conducted by the Water Transit Authority, it appears that the two northern locations are likely to be ranked a distant third and fourth behind the other two candidate sites in the Berkeley Marina. The northern sites are Buchanan Street (really closer to Fleming Point next to the race racetrack’s underutilized north parking lot) and Gilman (really a little to the north of Gilman, across from the stables area). 

There may or may not be significant negative environmental effects caused by a ferry transiting Eastshore State Park waters every half hour during the morning and afternoon commutes. Personally I suspect that it would be difficult to demonstrate that the narrow band of intermittent disturbance adjacent to a ferry route is a measurable threat to any local species. But this is really being driven by Albany’s ongoing debate about land use policy on the Albany waterfront. 

Those who see the benefits of a mixed-use urban waterfront with appropriately scaled commercial and recreational activities tend to want the ferry. Those with a vision of an unbroken, continuous shoreline park are in strong opposition. The ferry is viewed as the camel’s nose in the tent, leading the way to further commercial development. In any case the question is all but moot with respect to this round of ferry planning, as the advocates of the open space monoculture seem to be carrying the votes in Albany, and we can focus the debate on the options available for Berkeley. 

Unfortunately, the graphics presented at last week’s scoping meeting were somewhat misleading. Despite assurance from WTA staff that no marina berths would be displaced by the ferry terminal, the large site plan of the Doubletree terminal shows about 40 berths of F-dock (one of the newest docks in the marina) mysteriously vanished to make room for the ferry. 

“It’s only a concept sketch” is the excuse given, but really, the consultants who draw these finger paintings should be capable doing their homework a little better than that. 

The Doubletree location makes economic sense only if the new terminal is integrated into the existing Hornblower docks—or at least designed to co-exist with existing marina facilities. There are several ways to do this without significantly disrupting either the Hornblower operation or revenue-generating marina berths, but none of these options are shown. 

What about the other site, near Hs. Lordships restaurant? For some reason the technical difficulties of the open water location are being soft-pedaled. A thin line labeled “wave attenuator” substitutes for a breakwater. A floating breakwater may in fact be feasible, but this will have a much larger footprint than shown. It will be a significant engineering and construction cost, and might or might not prove to be more economical than a new fixed breakwater over time. 

The problem here is that both these errors combine to give the casual observer the impression that both of the marina sites are more-or-less equivalent in terms of cost and time-line. This is extremely misleading when the real-world economics are taken into account. The Doubletree hotel site has the potential to become a ferry terminal with minimal additional infrastructure. Indeed, it already is a ferry terminal for the Hornblower operation. 

Most of the required dock, parking, dredging and breakwater are already there. Environmental review would be streamlined by the fact that the ferry uses an existing maritime facility and transits water already heavily-traveled by vessels of approximately the same size or larger. We might even be able to begin the service sooner than first-quarter 2011 as now anticipated by WTA. 

If you attend the second scoping meeting (Albany library, Thursday March 15, 6:30 pm), check out the site plans carefully and ask questions about the assumptions behind them. 

Why does WTA insist on spending millions to duplicate facilities that are already in place? Perhaps the systemic problem is that WTA, because of its assured bridge toll revenue funding, is planning an over-subsidized service. 

Ferries are wonderful additions to our mix of public transportation options, and can improve the quality of life even for occasional users. But let us not delude ourselves into believing that ferries will reduce congestion or improve air quality in any significant way. As such, it is hard to justify a per-trip subsidy that is any higher than the subsidies for more practical options like Transbay bus service or increased parking at BART stations. 

And, transportation policy aside, we also need to avoid heavy subsidies for the Berkeley ferry because an artificially low ticket price is likely to generate artificially high passenger volume, and this would strain the capacity of either of the two Berkeley Marina locations. Pricing the tickets closer to actual cost will keep the scale of the service small, and the number of cars well within what our existing infrastructure can support. 

Cost-based pricing will avoid using subsidies better spent on more efficient modes of transportation, and it will avoid the necessity to spend many millions on parking structures and other high-volume terminal facilities. 

But the best argument for keeping the subsidy level low and the scale of the service small is to reduce risk. Despite WTA’s projections, there really is no reliable way to anticipate the passenger demand. By avoiding high terminal costs, we will not have committed millions of public transportation dollars to a service that might not be viable. Too few riders makes it economically wasteful. Too many riders means it will have to move to a location that can support more parking. 

Another example of the effect of over-subsidizing is the design spec for the two new ferries: The distance from the marina to SF is only 5.6 miles; you only need to go 17 knots to cover that distance in 20 minutes. But WTA has ordered two new 25-knot designs, requiring engines that are more than twice as powerful as what would be required for a slower speed that matches the route, even with reasonable margins. (Power varies by speed cubed.) Cost, weight and emissions implications are clear. This is a very high price to pay for the ability to swap out the ferries to longer and less viable routes that require the higher speeds. 

Not to mention that the higher speed also appears to driving a switch from compliance with the 46 CFR Subchapter T standards to which virtually all U.S. ferries are built, to the more stringent International Maritime Organization code for high speed craft. (Okay, WTA is petitioning for an exemption from the seat belt requirement, but it demonstrates how inappropriate the ISO standards are for a boat that only needs to go 17 knots.) More weight, more cost, and totally unnecessary if the speed were matched to the route. 

WTA has the resources to do this right. Regional Transit Measure 2 provides funding from Bay Bridge toll revenue. Follow the progress of the contract with shipbuilder Nichols Brothers—these 25-knot 149-passenger catamaran ferries are contracted to cost about $6 million and be delivered sometime this year. If this first major real-world acquisition by WTA is delivered significantly late and over budget, I fear that WTA will be well on its way to creating a legacy of technical and administrative errors that will rival those of BART in its early years. 


Paul Kamen is a naval architect.