Public Comment

Is the Berkeley Ferry Cost-Effective?

By Paul Kamen
Thursday June 04, 2009 - 07:07:00 AM

Is the Berkeley ferry cost-effective? Of course not, as a recent letter to the editor by David Fielder demonstrates. Without even considering operating costs, just the capitalization of the boats, terminal and parking structure amount to about $8 per ride. Ferries are never cost-effective when there’s already a bridge and a tunnel spanning the same body of water. 

There is really only one good argument for the ferry: People like ferries. The Berkeley ferry will never be part of a sensible transportation plan. But it can become a valued public amenity, and this alone might be enough reason to go ahead with some form of the Berkeley ferry. 

But let’s do it right, and do it on an appropriate scale. 

There is no need for the grandiose $31 million terminal structure shown in the WETA proposal. We don’t need to home-port two boats at the facility, and we don’t need to build breakwaters that will guarantee operation every day of the year through the worst winter storms. 

Most important of all, we don’t need to turn every parking space on the south side of the marina into ferry parking, or spend another $20 million on a 650-space multi-level parking structure right along the shoreline. 

We can have our terminal at the selected site with a simple ticket kiosk, an ordinary pier and a boarding float. We don’t need an elaborate all-weather breakwater; a floating wave attenuator will be ample protection from the prevailing sea breeze chop 98% of the time. Sure, there will be a few days a year when the water is too rough. But service interruptions due to storm conditions are part and parcel of travel by sea. Is it worth another $15 million or more to ensure continuous operation of what really amounts to a boutique service? 

Historically, ferries have operated from essentially the same site with no breakwater protection at all.  

But the main reason to go light on this project is the limited capacity of the marina’s infrastructure. We can probably handle 500 round-trips per day. We can’t handle 1,700 without serious negative impacts on a long list of activities, organizations, access points and businesses. 

Our basic tool to control ridership level is price. The city needs to take the position that we cannot afford to turn over our parking resource to the ferry operator and its passengers for free. There is no reason not to expect ferry passengers to pay market price, to the City, for parking on city land. 

How do we define market price? It’s the price at which the demand matches the supply. So if, for example, a peak-season parking analysis determines that there are 300 available parking spaces near the terminal, then the ferry ticket price needs to include a parking fee that naturally limits the additional parking load to 300 cars. 

Note that you can’t charge for parking separately, as there is no practical way to keep ferry passengers from parking in other adjacent marina lots needed for other waterfront functions. The fee has to be rolled into the ticket price. (Passengers arriving by bus or bike get deep discounts.) 

We would probably end up with one small ferry every hour instead of a big boat every 30 minutes. The ticket price might be $15 instead of $5, the city would collect about $400,000 per year in parking fees instead of having to subsidize the service, and the parking thrash would be avoided. 

It could be a win for everyone, and the only obstacle to going this route is that the Water Emergency Transportation Authority has too much money to spend and not enough adult supervision to insure that it is spent it wisely. 


Berkeley resident Paul Kamen is a naval architect.