By Spencer Silva
Bridge traffic: terrible. BART: packed like a can of sardines. After years of commuting from his home in Berkeley to San Francisco’s financial district, James Bartlett was ready for another option.
When a friend told him about a charter ferry service called PROP, running boats from Emeryville to San Francisco, it didn’t take long for him to book a trip. Soon, the $16 per round-trip fare was a staple of his weekly commute.
Unlike a traditional ferry, which carries hundreds of people, the PROP boat Bartlett rides is a sleek catamaran that accommodates about 40 people. It is speedy and efficient — the trip only takes about 15 minutes.
“It’s a huge treat. Bridge-to-bridge views, open waters. You come in looking right at the Transamerica Building,” Bartlett said
Still, Bartlett said he would love to forgo the traffic to Emeryville and leave straight from Berkeley.
He may not have to wait long.
In September, Alameda-based PROP and Sausalito-based Tideline were awarded the first maritime common-carrier permits to be issued in decades by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). It was the first step towards bringing a regular ferry service to Berkeley, a city that hasn’t had a ferry service since the Loma Prieta earthquake closed the Bay Bridge in 1989.
The permit allows the companies to post public schedules and set prices, which are capped by the CPUC. However, in order to provide regular service to the public, the companies still need to broker landing-rights agreements with various destination cities. Both companies want to bring service to the Berkeley Marina, though neither company holds a charter permit for that location yet.
The private ferry services were floated at a recent Berkeley Parks and Waterfront Commission meeting, though no formal recommendation has been made to the city. Paul Kamen, the commission’s vice-chair, doesn’t anticipate much happening until later in November, at the earliest, but doesn’t anticipate an arduous process.
“If they have a boat ready to go, they could start up as soon as the council approves it,” Kamen said.
To date, the City Council has only entertained “very informal presentations” about private ferry service and hasn’t “set up [an] approval process” for them either, according to a city spokesman.
While skeptics may see the size of the vessels as an impediment to scaling into a viable alternative to either driving or public transit, the companies say their low clearance — which allows them to dock in shallower waters — makes them an excellent option for cities that have neither the patience nor the resources to wait for new docks or terminals to be built.
“We want to connect cities that can’t [have ferries] because of dredging. There are waterways throughout the Bay Area that allow our vessels because they only need three feet of draft,” said Nathan Nayman, president of Tideline. “At some point, we could even go to Sacramento.”
Traditional ferries carry four to five times as many passengers, but PROP founder James Jaber said his boats reach their destinations nearly three times as fast, in cozy bucket seats no less.
“All of our boats are brand new. They’re fast and quick, unlike big ferries, which take longer to arrive and unload,” said Jaber. “They’re also far much more fuel-efficient than big boats.”
From Emeryville, PROP shuttles commuters for-hire, like Bartlett, to some of the region’s biggest employers, where he holds a charter permit. It’s like “Google bus on the water,” Jaber said.
Jaber hopes Berkeley will be an origination point for his company’s trips to Redwood City, saying the new service would offer Berkeley commuters the opportunity to bypass two of the region’s most-congested corridors: I-80 and 101-South. PROP’s schedule has the trip from Berkeley to Redwood City clocking in at less than an hour dock to dock.
Nayman said his company aims to begin a regular Friday commuter service out of the Berkeley Marina to Pier 1 1/2 in San Francisco sometime in November. His company has been seeking a landing-rights agreement since April, he said. When asked about how he would meet his timeline without city approval, Nayman said, “I can only hope that the city can move expeditiously.”
If the Friday service does well, Tideline will look into providing daily service from Berkeley to San Francisco, with the aim of eventually expanding to other cities. Nayman said the company already has a deal with Napa.
For its part, PROP published a proposed eight-route, daily commute schedule on its website, set to begin in “early January.” The company has worked out landing-rights deals with Redwood City and San Francisco, but doesn’t know when Berkeley will enter the fold.
“It’s best to let the city decide,” Jaber said.“I respect the process and want to apply what we’ve learned with other cities to apply our best practices [in Berkeley].”
As for fares, the services are expected to be slightly more expensive than the publicly funded ferries that go from Alameda and Oakland to San Francisco, which cost about $7 each way.
Nayman estimates a round trip from Berkeley to San Francisco on one of his boats would cost each customer between $16-22. Jaber estimates his round-trip service from Berkeley to San Francisco would cost about $20 and $35 to Redwood City. Both are already offering packaging deals online.
“Our vision is to see a fleet transversing the Bay north, south, east and west,” Nayman said.
Kamen doesn’t envision parking will be a problem in the Marina given so much of the Marina’s activity happens during the evenings and on weekends. The boats are expected to berth from the K-dock, across the street from the Cal Sailing Club.
“I think the Marina could absorb another 100 cars,” Kamen said.
Jaber and Nayman hope their private commuter services will work in conjunction with bike-sharing and private commuter bus shuttle companies, like Chariot, that would transport commuters from pick-up locations down to the water.
“Our goal is to eliminate the car,” Jaber said. “Folks aren’t thinking ahead — no-one thinks about the first and the last mile of the commute.” Nayman said Tideline is in discussions with several network transportation companies about collaboration. Scooters, bikes, shuttles: everything should be on the table.
For years, Kamen, a naval architect by trade, has advocated for the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) to bring a public ferry service back to Berkeley, but it won’t be making a comeback anytime soon.
“I think WETA has given up on Berkeley,” he said.
Kamen is skeptical the companies will be profitable at the fares set by CPUC — “they need to charge twice as much” — and doesn’t think they will have much of a positive impact on congestion. Despite this, he welcomes the service with open arms.
“I’m about as negative as it gets with ferries, and even I’d like to see it. As I like to say, ‘God intended for people to travel by ship.’”
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