City Council to Gauge Berkeley Ferry Project

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday November 17, 2009 - 09:00:00 AM

Is Berkeley ready for a ferry? The Berkeley City Council might have an answer after receiving a presentation on this highly contentious proposal at tonight's council meeting. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz has recommended that, following the Water Emergency Transportation Authority's pitch for the $57 million ferry project, the council should either adopt a resolution supporting it or await the release of its final environmental impact report while solving some unresolved issues raised by the city's planning, transportation and waterfront commissions. 

While there are many Berkeley residents who support the rebirth of a ferry terminal in the city—Berkeley last had ferry service during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but it was discontinued due to a lack of demand—there are others who view it as unnecessary, and have called it a “vanity project.” 

WETA officials have said that a ferry would offer the public more mass transit options during weekdays as well as offer emergency transportation during natural disasters and bridge closures, like the time a Bay Bridge cable snapped due to high winds last month, resulting in highly crowded BART trains during peak hours. 

When the Planning Commission failed to make any kind of recommendation at their Oct. 30 meeting, WETA officials returned disappointed. However, a few weeks later, both the transportation and the waterfront commissions declared conditional support for the project. 

Although WETA wants the Berkeley City Council to pass a resolution supporting the proposed project prior to certifying the final environmental impact report in December—which would clear the way for regional funds to build the terminal in Berkeley—the agency does not need the council's approval in order to sign off on it, according to a report by Kamlarz. If WETA does not certify the report by December, the regional funds would go towards building a terminal in Richmond. 

However, WETA has hinted that the Federal Transportation Authority “requires an expression of local interest” before accepting an environmental impact study for a project which would spend millions of dollars in federal money. 

Kamlarz said that the city is not yet aware of any specific deadline by which the FTA is required to accept the study. 

However without Berkeley's support, WETA could lose federal dollars. 

Some of the concerns Kamlarz raised after listening to comments made by the planning, transportation and waterfront commissions on the draft environmental impact report released in December 2008 were the proposed project's impact on recreational and economic development uses of the Berkeley Marina and mitigation for traffic impacts. 

Ian Austin, vice president of URS, a San Francisco-based engineering firm, told the Planning Commission at the October meeting that the terminal, which would be located on Seawall Drive near Hs Lordship's restaurant, would enhance the adjacent Bay Trail along with the waterfront. 

Austin said the project would change waterfront use by improving landscaping and adding bike racks and free parking without altering current recreational and commercial features. 
 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. 

Members of the Waterfront Commission have voiced concern about how the project would impact water sports as well as vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic flow. 

The Berkeley City Council meets at 7 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, Nov. 17) at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 


Click here here to read a report on the Oct. 30 Planning Commission.