Bay CrossingsBay Environment

Conservationists and Commuters Speak Out on Ferry Expansion

By Tery Shore Bluewater Network 
Published: January, 2002

If it can be done environmentally and economically, it should be done." That was how one commuter from Novato summed up his view of a possible ferry expansion on San Francisco Bay, speaking at the last of the public environmental meetings recently held in all nine Bay Area counties. His statement probably best encapsulated the sentiments expressed by participants, which ranged from a dozen to more than 60 people at each scoping session.

Environmentalists were as avid about protecting the air, water and wetlands as commuters were livid about traffic jams and the need for ferry service as soon as possible. Often both conservationists and commuters shared these potentially conflicting concerns. Now the Water Transit Authority (WTA) must balance these two primary considerations as it begins work on an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for an expanded ferry system.

The following is what I perceived to be some of the key issues and conflicts that arose at the meetings. The official scoping document will be available from the WTA early next year.

In the North Bay, possible terminals in Port Sonoma and Gnoss Field generated the greatest discourse of all. Marin and Sonoma environmentalists seemed united in opposing these potential sites. Both sites are located in some of the last wetlands in San Francisco Bay, home to endangered clapper rails and black rails. The potential for inducing growth in protected wild and agricultural lands was also a huge concern.

Pt. Sonoma is located far from any public transit links today, though a railroad right of way travels past the port that could one day provide light rail service. However, most commuter traffic nowadays flows from Sonoma into Marin, not San Francisco. Some traffic relief is expected once the High Occupancy Vehicle lane is continued through San Rafael and the Novato Narrows widened. North Bay environmentalists generally favor expanded bus or rail service to a ferry hub in Larkspur, San Rafael or even San Quentin, down the road.

At the same time, North Bay supervisors and the business community pointed to the fact that some development already exists at the proposed terminal areas such as the air field at Gnoss Field and the marina at Port Sonoma. Golden Gate Ferry’s Dave Clark noted that ferries once traveled up the Petaluma River regularly, asking that the historic environmental impacts, if any, from such service be studied. He also suggested that building and maintaining a modern ferry terminal at Port Sonoma could help solve the marina’s siltation problem.

In the South Bay, one resident called herself a "Peninsula Prisoner" for the lack of public transit in that part of the Bay Area. Others echoed her sentiments, including several Alviso residents who would like to see that port revived to its former glory as an active terminus for ferry boats. Oyster Point in South San Francisco is already studying ferry service and Redwood City wants it too. Both expect large new employment centers that could be served by ferries. Oyster Point already has a large commercial marina and Redwood City is an industrial port that is currently dredged.

The main environmental concerns in the South Bay are air pollution, disruption of wildlife such as birds and seals, and threats to wetlands restoration. Recently, the South Bay was designated a "globally important bird area" by international conservation groups. But the South Bay environmentalists that I talked to thought that if clean, low-wake, quiet ferries (not noisy Hovercraft) were put into service at the existing ports of Redwood City and Oyster, the environmental tolls might not be overwhelming.

In fact, I’m thinking about contacting Larry Ellison of Oracle in Redwood City to see if he might help build a Solar Sailor to transport his workers across the Bay! Ellison is an avid sailor, currently backing an America’s Cup team that is competing in New Zealand in January.

Along the mostly developed shore of the Central East Bay, controversy about ferry service revolves more around competing with transit modes, park development and costs than wetlands or habitat issues. Berkeley seems split over ferry service. Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter vehemently opposes commuter service in Berkeley because it would negatively impact the existing parks and development of the new Eastshore Regional Park. Also, Berkeley is already well served by BART and bus service, so ferry service may be too costly and even redundant.

Several Berkeley City Council members are worried about air pollution from diesel ferry engines, though the mayor is a big supporter of ferries in general. Berkeley sailor Paul Cayman envisions renovating the old Berkeley Pier and running ferry service to San Francisco as part of a Berkeley Waterfront development plan.

But if ferry service in Berkeley doesn’t work, what about Richmond? The Friends of Richmond Ferry are working hard to put Richmond back on the map for ferry service. Former ferry riders are convinced of the viability of service here, despite the failure of a previous provider. The group has crunched the numbers and says it could work with proper management, marketing and funding.

Richmond’s ferry terminal is ready to go. With redevelopment moving forward, the ferry could serve new residents and possibly recreational visitors. The environmental issues appear minimal, save the air pollution problem. But with a very sharp supporter like Kristel Frank leading the charge for a natural gas vessel, Richmond may just be the best site environmentally for expanded service.

Other communities near the 80 corridor such as Rodeo, Martinez, Benecia and even Antioch are also pushing for ferry service, and will be studied by the WTA.

As for the existing terminals at Alameda and Oakland, I don’t’ recall any comments for or against expanding service at those locations. I missed the Vallejo hearing, and some others did, too, due to a massive traffic jam that stretched along Highway 101 all the way across Highway 37 to Vallejo.

In San Francisco, the environmental community turned out in force to address the EIR process and larger overall issues. Here are some of the key comments:

»  A revised or supplemental systemwide EIR may be needed to address regional environmental impacts not covered in the initial programmatic EIR due to lack of research.

»  WTA should study a ferry alternative that does not include terminals that were eliminated by the original Blue Ribbon Task Force, otherwise it may appear that these locations are environmentally acceptable.

»  WTA should consider several levels of vessel emissions for EACH alternative.

»  The regional impacts of solid waste produced by the ferries and terminals need to be studied.

»  A bus alternative must be evaluated and compared to truly assess the value of the ferry system.

»  A subalternative should be created to study JUST potential parking impacts at terminals.

»  Some impacts will not be mitigable, such as loss of wetlands or endangered species habitat.

»  Regional growth inducing impacts must be studied in the programmatic EIR.

»  Research on natural resources impacts should be completed as part of the programmatic EIR, not delayed until the site-specific EIR, such as dredging, disruption of rafting birds, wetlands loss.

»  Environmental justice issues must be studied in the programmatic EIR to demonstrate that the service will serve a diversity of riders.

»  Diesel exhaust health effects must be studied as part of the programmatic EIR.

»  The ferry system should not increase total vehicle miles traveled in the Bay Area.

»  Ferry routes that connect on the same side of the Bay (such as Redwood City to San Francisco) should be compared to expanding existing landside transportation.

»  The ferry system should be focused on transit-oriented land use

»  The EIR should identify ways to optimize landside transit services

»  Capital cost and operational costs should be considered and compared to other modes.

»  Land use issues must be approached regionally, not site-specific.