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Can ferries make a comeback through expanded services?

Apr 23, 2019 6 MIN. READ
Investments in ferry systems dwindled as usage of paved bridges increased, but a renewed focus on economic development and environmental stewardship is bringing them back to the forefront of transportation.

From coast to coast, U.S. cities are reinvigorating their ferry systems. Municipalities are hoping to spur economic development, decrease reliance on automobile travel, and create transportation redundancies for emergency preparedness.

The Bay Area’s strong vision and record of recent success provide inspiration and lessons for other regions around the country, showing how to maximize the benefits of burgeoning ferry systems. In particular, the recent revitalization of the service between Richmond and San Francisco serves as an example of successful implementation of a system expansion program based on demand, feasibility, and sustainability.

A brief Bay Area ferry history

Ferries historically have played a major role in Bay Area transportation. From the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s to the completion of its major bridges in the 1930s, ferries were the only means of mass transportation across the bay. As such, they helped to make San Francisco the huge financial and cultural center of the region that it is today.

Peak ferry service in the Bay Area occurred in the mid-1930s, after which construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge literally paved the way for automobile traffic and ferry ridership declined.

The downturn was swift. By 1958, despite the recognition that traffic congestion on the area’s newly minted bridges would soon become an issue, ferry service across the bay had ceased.

Instead of promoting the use of ferries to address the growing post-war automobile boom, local leaders and policymakers focused on establishing the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which would eventually construct a transbay tube to transport commuters across the bay.

Over time, however, increasing traffic congestion, transit system emergencies, and natural disasters set the stage for a renewed demand for ferries.

By the 1960s, ferry service was back. At first, service was sparse—beginning with a few daily trips between Tiburon and the San Francisco Ferry Building—but it grew over time. Eventually, natural disasters such as mudslides that forced closures of the Golden Gate Bridge, a fire that shutdown of the Transbay Tube, and the collapse of a portion of the Bay Bridge from the Loma Prieta earthquake awakened awareness of the importance of ferries—both for emergency response as well as congestion management.

Advances in technology also helped to spawn renewed interest in ferry use, as travel times decreased and the rider experience improved.

San Francisco Bay Area Water Transportation Authority

The primary ferry service provider in the Bay Area is the San Francisco Bay Area Water Transportation Authority, otherwise known as WETA. WETA is a regional public transit agency that’s tasked with both operating and expanding ferry service on the San Francisco Bay, in addition to coordinating water transit response to local emergencies.

The agency’s role in expanding ferry service, particularly along routes where ferries can serve as an alternate travel mode to congested transit corridors, has become increasingly important as economic and population growth in the Bay Area continues to flourish.

Under the San Francisco Bay Ferry brand, WETA carries over 2.8 million passengers annually, utilizing a fleet of 14 high-speed passenger-only ferry vessels. San Francisco Bay Ferry currently serves the cities of Alameda, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, South San Francisco, and Vallejo. The Richmond ferry terminal serves the newest route, between the cities of Richmond and San Francisco.

Richmond ferry service history

Modern commuter ferry service between the cities of Richmond and San Francisco started in 1999. That service ended in 2000 as a result of the economic downturn experienced in the post-dot-com era.

Since then, the concept of a Richmond ferry service appeared in numerous local and regional planning documents. WETA has partnered with a variety of stakeholders to analyze the feasibility of a new ferry service and to identify the location of a new Richmond terminal.

The location of the terminal was identified around 2012, and the concept design was completed in 2014. State and federal environmental review commenced shortly thereafter. The project required numerous resource agency permits, as well as several real estate agreements, including a property lease with the City of Richmond.

A substantial milestone was a funding agreement with the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority, committing at least 10 years of operational funding from a countywide transportation sales tax measure. With financing in place, WETA completed the environmental review and permitting and moved the project into final design and construction. Construction of the terminal started in the fall of 2017 and was completed in December 2018.

Currently, the Richmond ferry service, which launched on January 10, 2019, provides four trips from Richmond to San Francisco during morning commute hours and four trips from San Francisco to Richmond in the evening commute hours, with limited reverse commute service as well. Transit time between Richmond and San Francisco is approximately 35 minutes. The service is off to a strong start with more than 15,000 boarding in the first month, averaging 621 boardings per day.

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Connectivity and economic development for Richmond and beyond

It makes good economic and environmental sense to acknowledge the regional trends that have brought us to this current moment in Bay Area transportation history, with the expansion of ferry service in Richmond and beyond.

This movement aligns with goals and strategies identified at the state, regional, and local level to connect people to the places they need to go while getting them out of their cars. And the demand for service clearly exists.

In Richmond in particular, expanded service aligns with city plans and policies that identify ways in which expanded ferry service can increase connectivity for residents to the greater Bay Area. The Richmond Bay specific plan, for instance, notes in its discussion of connectivity and transportation that the new WETA ferry terminal within the plan area will provide a seamless connection to San Francisco, and indicates the arrival of passenger ferry service to the city as the most significant planned enhancement to public transportation service in the area.

The new ferry terminal will also support regional connectivity for residents populating burgeoning development along Richmond’s shoreline and throughout the city as a whole.

As described in a recent San Francisco Business Times feature, developers are flocking to Richmond’s shoreline area, building homes that offer stellar views of the bay and easy access to the ferry—thus speeding up San Francisco and North Bay commutes. The expansion of ferry service to Richmond is also expected to draw business to existing food and entertainment venues along the city’s waterfront.

Providing benefits to Richmond’s residents and visitors alike, the establishment of the new ferry service, along with completion of proposed new developments along the city’s waterfront, is a key piece of the region’s vision for promoting environmental quality and economic opportunity. Local policymakers are laser-focused on through the expansion of transit-oriented development and improvement of transportation options to achieve these goals.

The Richmond ferry will take an expected 500 to 1000 daily riders off Bay Area Rapid Transit and regional roadways while providing increased access to jobs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The terminal also has the potential to help revitalize the community by resurrecting its history as a regional transportation hub, promising economic development and increased tourism in the years to come.

For WETA, this vision for Richmond is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to the agency’s 2016 strategic plan, its 20-year expansion and enhancement strategy would increase ferry service by more than 80 percent, providing residents with less-congested commute options. At full buildout, the system would bring ferry service south to the peninsula and north to the Carquinez Straight, reducing roadway traffic and offering additional capacity and redundancy to serve the Bay Area after a natural disaster.

While each city and region has its own set of parameters for a successful transportation network, WETA’s vision and execution for expanded ferry system highlight the opportunities that come with increased investment in ferries.

By Dr. Greta Brownlow