Berkeley Ferry Project Makes Waves But Doesn't Win Recommendation

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday October 30, 2009 - 08:57:00 AM

When news of the Bay Bridge closure broke at the Berkeley City Council meeting on Tuesday Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates asked, jokingly: “Where’s our ferry?” 

But of course there was no ferry to whisk stranded Berkeley commuters to and from San Francisco that night, or over the next few days for that matter. The only alternative was BART, which has been especially crowded this week with the bridge closed. 

However, that could change with The Water Emergency Transportation Authority’s proposal to restore a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina for access from Berkeley to San Francisco. 

Ferries were used in Berkeley in 1989 to carry passengers and supplies after the Bay Bridge was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake but the service was discontinued due to a drop in demand. 

However, not everyone sees the Berkeley ferry project, estimated to cost $57 million—$34 million will go toward terminal construction and $23 million for the vessels—as feasible or even desirable. 

Critics have called it “a white elephant,” “a vanity project” and a “boondoggle.” 

WETA, which returned to the Berkeley Planning Commission meeting Wednesday to answer lingering questions about the Berkeley ferry proposal, left the discussion disappointed when the commission failed to make any kind of recommendation to the Berkeley City Council. The project is scheduled to go to council Nov. 17. 

Ian Austin, vice president of URS, a San Francisco-based engineering firm, said that the terminal, which would be located on Seawall Drive, would enhance the adjacent Bay Trail as well as the waterfront. Austin said that the project would change waterfront use by improving landscaping, adding bike racks and free parking without altering current recreational and commercial features. 

“It will bring more people to this site for transportation and recreational purposes,” he said.  

With respect to the commissioners’ questions about whether the terminal would have adequate parking given the recent service cuts to AC Transit, WETA said the cuts “would match the level of service provided by the ferry route.” 

The ride across the bay would take about 22 minutes and would drop commuters off at the San Francisco Ferry Terminal, which also serves as a stop for the Sausalito and Tiburon ferries. 

The two 199-passenger ferries would provide an estimated 1,716 weekday ferry passenger trips by 2025, according to WETA, which the agency said would be one of the highest ridership levels among proposed Bay Area ferry routes. 

Berkeley Waterfront commissioner Jim McGrath, also a member of the San Francisco Boatsailor’s Association, said that the proposal did not address how it would impact recreational uses on the water. 

He said that the Waterfront Commission had concerns about adequate parking and the ferry terminal’s impact on vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian traffic flow.  

The commission also doesn’t want the construction and associated windbreakers to interfere with windsurfers or kayakers. 

When Planning Commissioner Gene Poschman asked the city’s planning director if a ferry terminal was mentioned in Berkeley’s Waterfront Plan, Marks said that although “there is nothing in the plan that addresses this area at all, it doesn’t preclude the ferry.” 

“I don’t see the need for an amendment,” Marks said, when Poschman suggested one. 

A couple of commissioners said they were hesitant to make any kind of a recommendation to council when a proper analysis of the project was lacking. 

“I agree with you that there’s not a lot, but you have what you have,” Marks said. 

Commissioner Teresa Clarke said she would like the ferry to become a recreational amenity which would run on the weekends, bringing people and families down to the piers more often. 

Commissioner Victoria Eisen said she was afraid the ferry would take away BART ridership and lead to more car trips down to the waterfront. 

Environmental impact reports indicate that 400 parking spots would be necessary for ferry riders, which WETA plans to meet by using the parking lot at Hs Lordship's restaurant on Seawall Drive along with valet parking near the Berkeley Marina. 

Commissioner Patti Dacey, who called herself the “resident fiscal conservative” on the commission, said the proposed project was “a very headless way of acting” at a time when bus services were being slashed. 

Although most commissioners agreed the ferry would add life to the Marina and bring people into Berkeley for special events such as the Kite Festival, the commission failed to garner enough votes to support the proposal.