Public Comment

A White Elephant Ferry—in Berkeley?

By David Fielder
Thursday October 22, 2009 - 09:35:00 AM

Perhaps it is to be expected that the latest incarnation of an SF Bay ferry system will have its own associated color, but most unfortunate that it will be that of a White Elephant. 

  For years now, concerned Bay Area residents have observed the political machinations of the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) as it morphed from a role focused on passenger ferry operations, to the more headline-grabbing proposition of providing emergency services. Unfortunately, neither type of service is financially sound or needed, at least in the case of the Berkeley proposal. Recent history provides proof of these assertions in that the Red & White ferry service begun after Loma Prieta in 1989 quickly succumbed to lack of demand. In addition, WETA has documented that the existing Hornblower ferries docked within the Berkeley Marina were available within 24 hours of the earthquake to provide just the emergency service WETA now claims as its primary justification. 

  The most egregious outcome of the proposed Berkeley commuter ferry will be the long-term commitment by Bay Area taxpayers to subsidize this boondoggle. Brad Smith, a former member of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission, recently presented a detailed analysis to that commission documenting that each one-way trip will have to be subsidized by at least $17 in public funds in order to keep one-way ticket prices below $7 per rider. This compares unfavorably with the estimated $3–$6 public subsidies currently ensuring AC Transit and BART services for the East Bay public. It is also notable that the entire projected ridership utilization of this commuter ferry could easily be accommodated by a total of 5 BART cars per day (not trains—cars), while WETA projects that ridership won’t reach 800 passengers each way per day until at least 2025. 

  Over the past year, WETA’s approach has undergone remarkable changes in response to public concerns regarding the problems just identified and others. Each time, WETA staff and consultants have made changes that raise new concerns—to the point that this process has come to resemble “Whack a Mole.” For example, when it was pointed out that the Marina parking area identified for assignment to commuter parking could not accommodate the planned need while still supporting current recreational users of the Berkeley Marina—it is a public park after all—WETA staff next proposed building a $20 million two-story parking structure on the lot just to the north of His Lordship’s Restaurant. Public reaction and budget realities again forced WETA to withdraw that proposal—now replaced by a valet parking scheme where contracted staff would accommodate the additional cars by parking them behind/blocking regular parkers—all in newly striped spaces significantly smaller than those currently in place—further impacting existing recreational use. 

  In summary, the problems raised by WETA’s ferry plan for Berkeley include: 

  1. The primary rationale for the project, providing emergency transportation and decreasing commute congestion, is not valid. 

2. This use of $50 Million in public funds is a fiscal and societal boondoggle, particularly when our schools and municipal infrastructures are undergoing precipitous decay. 

3. WETA has demonstrated a remarkable ability to ignore existing Berkeley Marina plans, as well as public input, and there is no reason to expect they will do otherwise as they attempt to complete this project. The ferry project will directly impact Berkeley’s largest park and its parking plan will eliminate existing landscaping and many of the amenities that the city has been planning for improving the Bay Trail. 

4. The latest valet parking scheme will degrade access for current users of the Marina Park, and will frustrate commuters who are forced to valet park and then wait as three staffers try to deal simultaneously with the expectations of up to 199 arriving commuters. 

5. Dredging of a second, ten-foot deep channel on the south side of the Berkeley Pier and installation of a required 300 foot breakwater will ensure permanent disruption for current recreational users—fishers, sightseers, kayakers, sailors, windsurfers, kite sailors, etc.—increase sedimentation within the South Sailing Basin, degrade water quality, and endanger the same oyster population WETA has identified as one reason this ferry cannot be accommodated within the existing marina harbor. 

6. Shorebird Park users—primarily young children—will be put at increased risk due to high traffic volumes, and access to that park and its quality will be diminished by parking and dredging activities. 

7. WETA has announced that its funding will not cover provision of weekend service. Thus, this ferry terminal and parking concession will be limited to weekday commuter services – certainly not the best use of our public park space. 

8. The WETA draft Transition Plan (WETA-TP) indicates the need for ongoing operational subsidization and financial responsibility of the cities involved: TP04029.pdf, so this White Elephant has the unfortunate, long-term potential to become a financial albatross around the necks of Bay Area taxpayers. 

  If these facts concern you, please make your opinions known at the last two public hearings in Berkeley scheduled for this plan: Berkeley Transportation Commission on Oct. 29 (revised date); City Council on Nov. 17. The latter meeting is where WETA expects to obtain approval from our city council members. Several are apparently already committed, in spite of these public concerns, as indicated in the WETA Board minutes of June 4, 2009: 

  I trust that it is not too late for our elected officials to respond to these well-documented concerns and reject WETA’s proposal, thereby ensuring that our scarce public funds aren’t further wasted. 


David Fielder is a Berkeley resident.