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Council Votes to Support Berkeley Ferry Project

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:32:00 AM

Is Berkeley ready for a ferry? The Berkeley City Council seems to think so. 

The council voted 7–2 to support the project with a number of conditions, after debating and discussing this contentious proposal until midnight Tuesday. 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz had recommended that, following the Water Emergency Transpor-tation 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 unresolved issues raised by the city’s Planning, Transportation and Waterfront commissions.  

While there were many Berkeley residents at the meeting who supported 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 were others who viewed it as unnecessary, calling it a “vanity project.”  

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

WETA Executive Director Nina Reynolds told the council that a 2005 phone poll of about 400 Berkeley residents showed that 74 percent were interested in restoring ferry services to Berkeley. 

Subsequently the City Council asked WETA to do an environmental study, and in April 2009, after several scoping sessions, the agency whittled site selection down to Seawall Drive. 

Work on the final environmental study began right after that. 

WETA then went on to secure funds from a number of regional, state and federal partners, including $9 million in federal capital construction funds with the help of Congresswoman Barbara Lee. 

The project was also included in MTC’s Regional Transit Expansion Program. 

“We consider this a highly supported project, Reynolds said. “We think there are many benefits to providing ferry service. It’s a great transbay transportation alternative—a great way to link great cities. Ferries were able to pick up some of the load during the recent Bay Bridge emergency.” 

Reynolds added that the Berkeley ferry would be able to take 30 bikes at a time, which she said would be to the advantage of people who can’t bike across the Bay Bridge or have limited access to bringing their bikes on BART. 

“As we have moved through the process we have heard concerns about parking and access to the ferry terminal site,” Reynolds said. “We are working to modify the design to address the problem.” 

When the Planning Commission failed to make any kind of recommendation at its Oct. 30 meeting, WETA officials returned disappointed. However, a few weeks later, both the transportation commission and the waterfront commission—which came close to opposing the proposal a second time—declared conditional support for the project.  

Although WETA wanted the City Council to pass a resolution supporting the proposed project before the agency certifies the final environmental impact report in December—which would clear the way for regional funds to build the terminal in Berkeley—the council’s approval of the EIR is not required, according to a report signed by Kamlarz.  

If WETA does not certify the report by December, the regional funds could go toward building a terminal in Richmond.  

On Tuesday WETA officials hinted that it might take until March or April before the final EIR is released to the public. 

WETA said that the Federal Transportation Authority “requires an expression of local interest” before accepting an environmental impact study for a project that 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.  

Reynolds said that the terminal, which would use the existing parking space for Hs. Lordship’s restaurant, would enhance the adjacent Bay Trail along the waterfront.  

Reynolds 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 planning 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 30 minutes during peak service 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 voiced concern Tuesday about how the project would impact water sports as well as vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic flow.  

Reynolds said that the breakwater would create a “very small footprint” and not interfere with windsurfers. 

She said that the project would employ 107 construction workers and 20 full-time staff. The council strongly urged WETA to hire locally. 

“This will be an improvement to the marina,” said Steve McDonald, an avid windsurfer who owns a business in West Berkeley. “It will not affect me at all, windsurfing. This is the beginning of a ferry system. As people come and we have smart growth, the ferries will be a very practical way to commute.” 

Carol Denney, a West Berkeley resident, said that the traffic generated from the project would stack the backup all the way to Nevada. 

“Gridlock is the new green,” she said, adding that frustrated drivers would start throwing their keys into the bay. 

“Everyone loves a ferry, but the devil’s in the details,” said David Fielder, a local sailor and windsurfer. “It will cost double that of BART—as Berkeley again leads the way in going green, why would you support something that’s less efficient than a car?” 

A majority of the councilmembers said that, although they supported the idea of a ferry, they would have been more comfortable supporting it if they had reviewed the final environmental study. 

Councilmember Laurie Capitelli proposed a number of changes to the conditions proposed by staff, an action Councilmember Jesse Arreguín, who voted against the project, contended watered down the terms to a certain extent. 

Based on Capitelli’s suggestions, the council decided to lease the ferry terminal and the parking lot to WETA for $1 annually instead of charging a fair market rate, as proposed by city staff. 

Other conditions imposed seek to have WETA collaborating with the city of Berkeley to design a parking enforcement plan that limits the ferry parking lot to WETA patrons only, in order to minimize impact on other parking areas. WETA will also provide traffic mitigations as mandated in the final environmental impact report. The city also has to be satisfied that the pending environmental impact report is legally adequate and addresses all its concerns. 

Although Capitelli wanted to strike bathrooms off the ferry terminal plans, the council voted to keep them on, out of concern for elderly and disabled commuters. 

WETA will also be required to continue addressing community concerns during the planning process. 

Although Councilmember Kriss Worthington wanted the council to hold off voting on the project until there was more time to gauge the revised set of conditions as well as its greenhouse gas impacts, his motion failed to pass. 

Worthington voted against the project.