Public Comment

Is the Berkeley Ferry Terminal a Good Use of Resources?

By Brad Smith
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:54:00 AM

At its Nov. 17 meeting the Berkeley City Council endorsed the construction of a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina. I present information here about how costly this ferry service to San Francisco will be relative to other modes of public transportation and ask if a Berkeley ferry terminal is a good allocation of diminishing state and federal resources. 

According to Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) staff at the Berkeley Transportation Commission of Oct. 29, the operating subsidy per passenger trip on the Berkeley/San Francisco ferry will be $8.62—compared with operating subsidies of $3.60 for AC Transit and $1.50 for BART. I don’t know how WETA staff arrived at this figure. I computed an estimate by first multiplying the 1,130 weekday passengers cited in WETA’s Ferry Fast Forward (8/09) by 260 (number of weekdays in a year) which yields 293,800 passenger trips annually. In its Final Transition Plan, WETA estimated the annual operational cost to be $5.3 million. Dividing $5.3 million by 293,800 yields $18.04 as the cost per passenger trip. Subtracting the WETA supplied fare revenue estimate of $4, the operating subsidy would be $14.04, not the $8.62 provided in their presentation to the Transportation Commission. WETA provides the fare revenue for BART as $2.80, but the current cost of BART from Downtown Berkeley to Embarcadero is $3.65. The one-way fare from the Berkeley Marina to San Francisco will likely be closer to $6 or $7 in today’s dollars. Both WETA’s and my estimate of the public subsidy for the ferry service are larger than the operating subsidies for AC Transit or BART. In addition to operating subsidies, there is also a public subsidy for capital expenditures—e.g., terminals and boats—which I estimate to be an additional $6.50 per passenger trip.  

Where will the funds for the public subsidy of operating, maintenance and capital costs come from? According to WETA’s Final Transition Plan (6/18/09), passage of Regional Measure 2 (RM2) in 2004 will provide local toll bridge funds for the entire regional ferry system expansion, including the five new regional routes, of $84 million in capital funds and $18.3 million in annual operating subsidies. In addition to the recent increase in tolls from $3 to $4, discussions are currently under way by the Bay Area Toll Authority to again raise bridge tolls from $4 to $5 with carpoolers paying $3 and other drivers $6 during peak hours. There is also mention of approximately $20 million in federal funds and “the promise of $250 million in Proposition 1B bonds.” According to the WETA’s Final Transition Plan, the Berkeley terminal is estimated to cost $34.2 million to be funded with future Proposition 1B and federal funds. It’s likely the federal funds will be borrowed. Proposition 1B funding, approved by the voters in 2006, permits the state of California to sell up to $1.475 billion in bonds, which, if fully implemented, would provide WETA with $250 million. The bonds, of course, will have to be repaid with interest. 

WETA comes to the City of Berkeley with “free money,” telling us that the ferry won’t cost Berkeley a penny. We’re told we would be fools not to accept the ferry terminal. If we don’t take it, someone else will. Another view is that those of us who live in Berkeley also live and pay taxes in Alameda County, California, and the United States. An increasing percentage of those taxes are used to pay back principal and interest on borrowed money, leaving less and less for the kinds of programs we value in Berkeley. We are close to reaching the limits of our borrowing capacity in California and the United States. We may not have to pay for the ferry terminal and boats out of the Berkeley General or Marina Funds, but we will be paying at the county, state and federal level for an amenity that we, as a society, simply cannot afford. During the council deliberations of the item, Councilmember Maio emphasized the “extraordinary subsidy” that the Berkeley ferry will require every year from local taxpayers. It’s widely noted in the media that the federal government and state of California are close to maxing out their credit cards. Our federal and state legislators are pushing costs and increasingly large and unsustainable repayment of principal and interest payments forward to our children and grandchildren. We cannot keep piling up this debt. 

In order to be cost effective, ferry terminals, like rail stations, should be within dense development and linked with other transit connections—as mandated by MTC for rail stations. Otherwise, they will have little use and, what use there is, will be by auto. There is general agreement that among all public transit modes, ferries are the most expensive and least fuel efficient. 

Given the high cost of public subsidy for ferries, doesn’t it make more sense, if we can’t stop this unsustainable borrowing, to allocate diminishing transportation resources to AC Transit and BART rather than to fund what most agree is an amenity that will do little to relieve Bay Area transportation problems during normal times, or even during an emergency? For this, and for many other reasons provided in other letters to the Daily Planet, a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina makes little sense. The City Council should have declined to endorse a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina and recommend the funds not be borrowed or, if the funds are borrowed, begin a process to reprogram them for underfunded AC Transit and BART. 

There are other cost issues. For example, the opportunity costs of endorsing a project without a planning process. As Councilmember Wengraf stated, “it is disingenuous to imply this won’t cost Berkeley anything”—the $1/year lease is a give-away given the potential for that Marina parkland. The Berkeley Waterfront Commission and City Staff recommended that, “WETA shall lease the ferry terminal and associated parking areas from the City at fair market rates, with a lease that shall be increased periodically as the market value of the leased land increases.” Whether the asphalt in the area now committed to a WETA parking could have been ripped up and turned into parkland to be added to the heavily utilized Shorebird Park or the parking used for a business that will replace the underperforming Hs Lordships restaurant should have been planned for. Instead it was rushed through council without a completed FEIR and with inadequate consideration of other possibilities and options. Councilmembers Worthington and Arreguín were correct to vote against a project that many now believe will one day be seen as an unnecessary boondoggle. 


Brad Smith is former chair of the Berkeley Waterfront Commission.