Berkeley Ferry: Project Launched, But a Long Voyage Remains

WETA's board gave the go-ahead last month to study construction of a ferry dock in Berkeley.

The 92-year-old Berkeley pier is the site that WETA and the City of Berkeley have agreed to study as the location for a new ferry terminal for service to San Francisco. Even if the location is approved and restored, it will likely be at least five years before ferry service is established. The pier has been closed since July 2015. Photo by Joel Williams

BY DAN ROSENHEIM

 

WETA’s board gave the go-ahead last month to study construction of a ferry dock in Berkeley. The board’s action is an important move toward establishing long-awaited passenger service between San Francisco and the East Bay city.

 

But even if everything proceeds smoothly, it will be five years at least before the first ferry begins its run.

 

“Richmond [where ferry service got underway earlier this year] was supposed to be the fast and easy project, but it was more than five years from the time we got serious about it,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director. “We say it takes five to seven years to develop a terminal, so if everything lines up, I’d say five years at the soonest for Berkeley.”

 

By a vote of four-to-one during the May board meeting, WETA directors approved a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the City of Berkeley to evaluate ferry operations from a restored Municipal Pier near the Berkeley Marina.

 

The financial commitment associated with the MOU, approved by the City of Berkeley in March, is modest: WETA would invest up to $250,000 on a year-long study, and Berkeley would spend up to $110,000, in addition to $250,000 it has already spent scoping out the site.

 

But the political significance is anything but small; the MOU comes after 15 years of on-again, off-again attempts to establish a Berkeley ferry run, with WETA spending $2.5 million on efforts that were all but abandoned in 2013 in the face of concerns about dredging, funding and conflicts with other uses for the marina.

 

Now, many of those obstacles appear to have been overcome. Under the current proposal, the restored pier would be a “dual-use” facility, providing not only ferry service but also public access to the waterfront. Once upon a time, the Berkeley Municipal Pier extended 3.5 miles into San Francisco Bay. A resurrected pier, while nowhere near that long, would provide an attractive coastal venue for walking and fishing, as well as transit.

 

The pier’s location would also greatly reduce the cost of dredging because ferries could use the existing boat channel for the marina in their approach to the terminal. And the passage of Regional Measure 3, although currently tied up in litigation, eases funding worries by potentially providing a big bundle of cash to subsidize ferry service.

 

Still, planners will need to navigate a tortuous maze of political issues and regulatory processes before any regular ferry service starts.

 

“If the feasibility study works out, we’ll next need to look at the environmental impact,” said Rannells. “And after that, we need to design and build and find boats before we launch.”

 

Oh, and did we mention regulation? Approvals for the new ferry operation will be required from an alphabet soup of agencies that includes Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE), US Fish and Wildlife (USFW), National Marine Fisheries (NMFS), Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and at least a half-dozen others.

 

Nor, as the 4-1 vote indicates, is there unanimity about this plan.

 

WETA Director Nick Josefowitz voted against it, arguing that a ferry terminal at the Berkeley Marina is not in keeping with WETA’s stated objective to build near residential and commercial centers. The proposed Berkeley terminal area, at the foot of University Avenue near the I-80 corridor, is bordered by park lands that are unlikely to see building construction in the foreseeable future.

 

“The problem with this site is it is virtually impossible to develop housing or commercial space within walking distance,” Josefowitz said. “That just doesn’t sit well with me.

 

“We have lots of crises in the region,” he continued. “Transportation is one; housing is another. You can’t solve these independently of each other.”

 

Josefowitz was joined in his dissent by some speakers from the floor, including two members of Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY), an ostensibly grassroots (critics label it AstroTurf) free-market housing coalition that endorsed Josefowitz’s unsuccessful run for San Francisco supervisor last year.

 

“We shouldn’t waste money on a bad use,” said a YIMBY member identifying himself as Steven Buss. “It is not going to be an effective commuting point.”

 

Underlying such protestations is a serious concern: how do you move commuters the proverbial “last mile” to get to a ferry dock? A ferry terminal that isn’t easily accessible risks being unpopular. In a debate that, while pointed, was distinguished by civility, even board members voting for the MOU declined to rule out considering other East Bay sites that might be more accessible.

 

But Berkeley government officials say they will use new bus routes, bike paths and managed parking to make the terminal easily accessible. And the absence of nearby residences does not seem to have hurt ferry terminals in north Alameda, Richmond and Larkspur, where water transit appears to be thriving.

 

“I don’t think there will be a problem with ridership at all,” said Rannells.

 

Two private ferry operators, Tideline and Prop SF, are already moving about 130 passengers a day on small boats from existing Berkeley Marina docks to employers elsewhere in the Bay.

 

And other potential sites in and around Berkeley appear to have been largely ruled out, either because of environmental concerns, expensive dredging or lack of local government support (Albany).

 

And, noted WETA Chair Jody Breckenridge, a former Coast Guard admiral, the marina site has great potential as staging ground in an emergency, when ferries might be pressed into special service. “It’s one of the few places that’s flat, and you have a lot of assembly area,” she said.

 

Accordingly, while the route to a Berkeley ferry promises to be long, the direction increasingly looks to be established.

 

Said WETA Vice Chair Jim Wunderman: “There’s only one Berkeley in the whole Bay Area, where we have that kind of dense community found in this way. It’s a whole city of people who need to get places. There’s the potential to have a very successful project in this location provided we’re thoughtful about it.”

 

Dan Rosenheim is a veteran Bay Area journalist who recently retired after 18 years as Vice President/News for KPIX-5 TV. Prior to going into broadcast, Rosenheim worked as a reporter, city editor and managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Dan and his wife, Cindy Salans Rosenheim, live in San Francisco.