The Berkeley City Council will vote on Nov. 17 whether to endorse construction of a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina between the fishing pier and Hs Lordships restaurant. This vote is premature because of unresolved, significant reservations expressed by Berkeley’s three cognizant commissions: Planning, Transportation, and Waterfront.
The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) planners have produced a fatally flawed Environmental Impact Report (EIR) while failing to address critical concerns about the project brought to their attention over the past year. WETA is now asking the City Council to endorse the project, claiming that remaining concerns and details will be negotiated in coming years. Jim McGrath, a Berkeley Waterfront Commissioner with 16 years of professional experience as the Port of Oakland’s Environmental Manager, has documented numerous problems inherent in their plan in an open letter to the Council dated Nov. 6. The Berkeley Waterfront Commission also conditioned approval for the project on WETA paying the city market rate rent for its use of Marina land, given the loss of projected leasehold revenue to the city and Marina Fund entailed by the project.
At its Oct. 29 meeting, the Transportation Commission also expressed reservations about siting the terminal at the Berkeley Marina. One commissioner noted that WETA was not going to run weekend service, obviating use of that facility as a recreational amenity. Another issue raised by that commission was the viability of the single access road serving the Marina. University Avenue west of I-80 is experiencing significant subsidence due to the fact that it is built over the original Berkeley Pier pilings. Specifically, the commission was concerned that the access road could be subject to liquefaction in a major quake, thus cutting off access to a ferry terminal being designed to “essential standards” for quake survival and subsequent emergency transportation services. Without funding to reconstruct University Avenue west of I-80, the terminal’s utility becomes even more questionable.
At its Oct. 28 meeting, the Planning Commission, citing concerns similar to those of Commissioner McGrath’s regarding potential violation of existing City plans and EIR shortcomings, chose not to endorse this project by a two-to-one majority.
Additional facts of interest have also come to light. In his presentation at the Transportation Commission meeting, John Sindzinski, WETA Manager of Planning and Development, presented data detailing that the projected public operating subsidy for the Berkeley ferry would exceed five times that of BART —$8.52 per rider vs. $1.50 for BART. Subsequently, it was disclosed at the Nov. 5 WETA Board meeting that in spite of trying to meet emergency service demands resulting from the Bay Bridge closure, ferries were forced to delay or cancel departures due to fog.
In conclusion, The Berkeley City Council appears ready to support a project that will cost more than $50 million of taxpayer funds to erect a ferry terminal destined to be underutilized, at risk for inaccessibility post-quake, dependent on increasing taxpayer subsidies, or most likely never to be constructed due to permitting and EIR deficiencies WETA has failed to address. Of perhaps even greater significance would be the long-term commitment of this portion of the Berkeley Marina to remaining a parking lot. In the past, Berkeley has shown vision and leadership when it turned a garbage dump into a regionally acclaimed kite park and scenic vista. Let’s not commit to a major portion of the Berkeley Marina remaining a parking lot for another 50 years.
An endorsement by the Berkeley City Council of this project would be poor public policy and particularly imprudent in these times of scarce resources and stretched borrowing capacity of the State of California. Even more importantly, it would be a waste of one of Berkeley’s public treasures.
Let’s hope that reason prevails at the Council meeting on Nov. 17.
David Fielder is a Berkeley resident.