Public Comment

Can Buses Save the Berkeley Ferry?

By Paul Kamen
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:24:00 PM

By Paul Kamen 


Water Emergency Transit Authority (WETA) staff has indicated its intention to recommend a site between the Municipal Fishing Pier and Hs. Lordships restaurant for the new Berkeley ferry terminal. 

The Gilman and Buchanan sites appear to be entirely off the table. It also appears unlikely that the Doubletree site, even if reconfigured to reduce cost and take advantage of existing infrastructure, will be reconsidered. 

The reality at this point in time is that if we want a ferry, we will have to find a way to make it work at the fishing pier site. 

It’s all about parking. As now shown in the draft EIS/EIR, parking demand would create significant and serious negative impacts on a long list of recreational, commercial and public service activities. WETA failed to recognize competing parking interests and has not yet proposed a viable alternative to its unrealistic concept of a controlled ferry-only parking area. With free parking nearby, controlled ferry parking necessarily results in either ferry parking overflow or new parking restrictions in surrounding lots, either of which will seriously interfere with existing use and access patterns. 

Absent the provision of a large number of new parking spaces, a successful ferry service will have serious negative impacts on: 

• Fishing pier access 

• Shorebird Nature Center classes and summer camp 

• Adventure Playground 

• Kayak and Windsurfer launch site access 

• Cal Sailing Club sailing lessons, open house events and youth program 

• Cal Adventures classes and youth program 

• Berkeley Racing Canoe Center access and youth program 

• Pegasus Project youth program 

• Restaurant customers (Skates, Hs. Lordships) 

• Charter fishing boat passengers 

• Bait shop customers 

• Berkeley Yacht Club 

• Private boat berthers on docks J through O 

All of these uses, except arguably the last five, have strong public access and community service components. Reduced access to nearby parking would constitute a serious loss in value to West Berkeley and the waterfront community. 

I can see three ways to effectively mitigate or avoid these impacts: 

1. WETA builds a big parking structure at the terminal. Probably 200–300 spaces required. At a (low) estimate of $30K/ space, that’s $6M-$9M for a multi-level structure. This is almost certainly too expensive to be feasible, and would en-counter serious opposition related to view and wind obstruction. 

2. Price the ferry service to reflect actual operating costs, and reduce the projected level of service to correspond to the reduced ridership. High ticket price, low operating subsidy, and fewer ferry trips per day. This is more along the lines of a “boutique” service. Ridership remains modest, parking demand probably around 200 spaces, well within existing weekday capacity. 

This also has the desirable attribute of not wasting too much public money on an inefficient transportation mode, yet still offers the “quality of life” benefit of the ferry option. On the downside, it would be more difficult for WETA to justify the large investment in terminal construction if fewer passengers are served. 

3. Bus-only access. This is the new idea. There have been experiments with “bus-only” ferries in other regions, whereby buses drive onto a car ferry but there is very limited walk-on access. This obviously requires a different type of vessel, generally larger than contemplated by WETA for the Berkeley route. However, the functional equivalent of “bus only” can be achieved in a passenger ferry simply by controlling boarding access at the terminal. 

It works like this: Only passengers coming off the feeder bus are allowed to board the ferry. With no pedestrian access, all ferry passengers come by bus. The last stop before the terminal could be on the other side of the freeway. No parking issues, no traffic issues, no impacts other than several buses arriving for each ferry departure. As a side benefit, other public-serving activities at the marina would be assisted, rather than impaired, by the greatly expanded bus service. 

The marina is uniquely suited to this arrangement because relatively few local residents would be deprived of access due to this boarding restriction. 

There are several variations of this scheme that would also work. For example, the subsidized ferry fare could be included in the bus fare, paid on boarding the bus ($5, for example). The transfer from bus to ferry is quick and efficient with no additional farebox or turnstile. However, a pedestrian boarding the ferry who did not come from the feeder bus would be assumed to have parked near the terminal. The fare for a non-bus ferry passenger would be set to include a market-rate parking fee ($15, for example). So the option of driving to the terminal still exists, but those passengers pay a market rate, set at whatever it takes to keep the parking demand within the “no-significant impact” limits of the existing parking resource. 

Another possible modification: Passengers on bicycles get in at the subsided bus-passenger rate, or less. 

Here’s the best part: The bus-only scheme does more than avoid all the negative impacts of excessive parking demand. It also shifts WETA resources to the feeder bus system, which improves local transportation service to many Berkeley residents who are not taking the ferry. 

For example: Three feeder routes could supply each ferry departure, as follows: 

The Ashby route: Down Ashby, Ashby BART, 7th/6th to U. Ave. and the marina. 

The Campus/U. Ave route: Down Cyclotron, through the U.C. Campus, Downtown Berkeley BART, U. Ave. to the marina. 

The Shasta/Cedar route: Shasta and Grizzly Peak, Down Shasta, Cedar, North Berkeley BART, 6th, U. Ave. to the marina. 

These three routes would provide badly needed frequent east-west feeder service to our three BART stations as well as to the ferry terminal. Some of the funding might come from AC Transit, but WETA appears to be the relatively deeper pocket these days, and this is one way to use a portion of the WETA RM-2 tollbooth revenue for something more useful than a ferry service 


Dates to keep in mind: 

April 1: WETA staff at Berkeley Planning Commission meeting. 

April 2: WETA board meeting, final site selection. ( 

May 5: WETA appears before the Berkeley City Council to present the results of the environmental process. 

Fall 2009: WETA circulates final environmental document after FTA approval. 

November 2009: WETA and FTA adopt final EIR/EIS. 


Paul Kamen is a naval architect who lives in Berkeley.