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February/March 2016

Ferries Plan Upgrades as Ridership Swells

A San Francisco Bay Ferry vessel departs from the Alameda Main Street Terminal in the Oakland Inner Harbor. Photo by Alec MacDonald.

By Cecily O’Connor

The number of Bay Area residents taking a ferry is rising, an increase that’s likely to continue as operators add new boats and routes, and upgrade infrastructure to ensure smooth sailing.

Ferry ridership jumped during 2015 as commuters sought relief from roadway congestion and packed BART trains, based on figures from two regional operators.

San Francisco Bay Ferry — which runs between Vallejo, Oakland, Alameda, San Francisco, and South San Francisco — shuttled 973,572 total passengers from July through October last year, a 20 percent increase over the same period the previous year.

Golden Gate Ferry — whose vessels sail out of Larkspur, Sausalito, and San Francisco — logged 2.54 million total riders for its fiscal year ended June 30, up nearly 3 percent from the previous fiscal year. Larkspur alone experienced 11 straight months of ridership growth as of December 31.

“Demand is high,” said Jim Swindler, head of Golden Gate Ferry. “If it gets much higher we’d have to look quickly at what to do to accommodate it. Right now, we’re keeping up with it.”

The increase is driven by the need for fast, reliable, and convenient commute options as the Bay Area economy thrives and sends more people to work. Another driver is commute pattern shifts, as parts of the East Bay and Silicon Valley join San Francisco as the region’s primary employment centers. Waterfront development in San Francisco also is making ferry access attractive to mitigate regional transportation constraints.

“I expect ridership will continue to grow, and people might be more outspoken [in] calling for ferry service around the bay as more waterfront developments are completed,” said Emily Loper, policy manager at the Bay Area Council, where she conducts research and analysis for the water transit committee.

To keep pace with demand, ferry operators and transportation planners will need to consider first- and last-mile terminal connections to ensure water commutes are competitive with other transit modes, Loper added. Facilitating those connections includes accommodating bicycling and walking as alternate ways to reach terminals, which also aids in regional pollution reduction.

Some residents first turned to the open water when BART closed the Transbay Tube for repairs last summer, said Ernest Sanchez, spokesperson for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which runs San Francisco Bay Ferry. Bay Bridge delays also compel riders needing a backup.

“Ferries have been quick to respond and serve their role as part of the public transit mix,” Sanchez said. “That has put us in the public eye.”

The result is often crammed terminal parking lots, overcrowded vessels, and more time to board or disembark. In response, WETA stepped up its operating budget for fiscal year 2015-2016 to ease overcrowding and extend some added ferry service for part of last summer and fall. Golden Gate Ferry raised its 2015-2016 budget as part of ongoing investments in its fleet and service.

Operators have looked to fare hikes to help cover these mounting expenses. Golden Gate Ferry officials recently proposed a 4 percent increase beginning July 1 to combat a $34.6 million, five-year projected deficit. Meanwhile, San Francisco Bay Ferry increased ticket prices last July as part of a five-year program to offset expected rises in operating costs.

Even prior to these increases, ferry fares have generally been higher than other transit modes. One tradeoff for the additional expense is that water transit offers a lot of enjoyment, with comfortable, high-speed boats that sell coffee in the morning and cocktails at night, among other perks. The weather, too, is fairly calm year-round, which makes service reliable and ideal for taking in local scenery before and after a hard day of work.

“The ferry is arguably one of the more beautiful ways to get across the bay,” said Priya Clemens, Golden Gate Ferry spokesperson.

San Francisco Bay Ferry’s fleet will rise to 14 vessels from the current lineup of 12 by 2018, the result of five new boat additions that will replace three retiring ones. Two of the vessels now under construction, at a total cost of $33.5 million, will each hold 400 passengers, accommodate 50 bikes, and travel at a speed of 27 knots (31 miles per hour). New vessels meet or exceed federal, state, and regional emissions standards.

The operator is planning a $45 million Richmond-to-San Francisco project in 2018, serving about 100,000 Contra Costa County residents the first year. A San Francisco-Treasure Island route will eventually follow. To accommodate current and future ferry service, the San Francisco Ferry Building will expand to include up to two new berths, a $65 million project.

Other projects include a $31 million North Bay maintenance facility at Mare Island in Vallejo and a $35 million Central Bay maintenance facility at the former Alameda Naval Air Station.

At Golden Gate Ferry, marketing is a priority to promote Marin County outings and fill empty reverse commute seats, Swindler said. Later this year, the operator might take over Tiburon service from Blue and Gold Fleet, which sells 216,000 Tiburon commute tickets annually. Golden Gate Ferry is currently studying the idea, and held a related open house and public comment hearing in late January. Comments from the events were “positive,” Clemens said, adding, “The only concern was if there would be a gap in service, and the answer is no.”

In the meantime, Golden Gate Ferry is working on American Disability Act access improvements at terminals in Sausalito and San Francisco, and is in early planning stages for similar enhancements at the Larkspur Terminal in addition to parking lot upgrades. Golden Gate Ferry’s seven-vessel fleet includes two recently refurbished high-speed boats, for about $22 million total, now in operation.

In ferries’ wake is Tideline, a water taxi service. It’s also filling seats and in discussions about partnership opportunities with Bay Area municipalities and housing developers who are building adjacent to the shoreline. The goal is to accommodate and move more residents, especially in areas unserved by transportation options, said Nathan Nayman, president of Tideline Marine Group, which operates the taxi.

Tideline has completed 1,000 trips since inception in 2012, serving more than 4,000 passengers in and around the North Bay, East Bay, and San Francisco, according to Nayman. “We’re another safety valve that’s helping relieve some of that pressure for people moving in and around the bay,” he said.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.

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