A San Francisco Bay Ferry on the water. Photo: The SF Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night in favor of a public planning process that could one day bring San Francisco Bay Ferry service to Berkeley.

Passengers would access the ferry from a “public recreation pier” — either a rebuilt version of the historic Berkeley pier, which closed in 2015, or a new structure altogether, according to the staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting.

The Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which runs large ferries throughout the Bay Area, has identified Berkeley as one of 16 possible locations for expanded service in the region. Regional Measure 3, approved by Bay Area voters last year, would help finance those plans in an effort to improve transit along “congested bridge corridors” by adding new bus and ferry services, according to the staff report.

The council vote Tuesday took place on the consent calendar with minimal comments from city officials or the public. And the Water Emergency Transportation Authority won’t vote on the planning process until its board meeting April 4. But many Berkeleyside readers reacted enthusiastically on Twitter to the possibility of expanded ferry service in town.

Berkeley already has what the city describes as “small-scale ferry service” at the marina. But larger ferries, which can hold hundreds of people, have not been an option. WETA believes there is demand in Berkeley, however, and estimates daily ridership from the Berkeley Marina to tally nearly 800 people, or nearly 1,600 trips, by 2035.

“Terminals in Redwood City and Berkeley will open between 2022 and 2026, offering ferry service to underserved and congested corridors in the Bay Area,” WETA wrote in its strategic plan, which was published in 2016. According to Tuesday’s staff report for council, WETA considered building a ferry terminal on Seawall Drive about 10 years ago but shelved the effort because there was no money to take action at that time.

A San Francisco Bay Ferry. Photo: The SF Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority

But the strategic plan and successful Regional Measure 3 vote reinvigorated the effort, leading WETA and Berkeley city staff to launch discussions into what might be possible, according to the council report. As part of those discussions, WETA and the city “realized that it would be cost-effective to investigate a single pier that would provide two uses – ferry service and public recreation.”

The planning process is set to include a “robust public engagement process” as well as “engineering feasibility studies” to look at the costs and technical needs associated with fixing the old pier or building a new one, along with a range of improvements to ferry-related parking areas, pathways and amenities such as restrooms, among other topics.

WETA says it has identified $250,000 to pay for “the design, permitting, environmental review, and construction of the waterside and landside improvements associated with ferry service, as well as the annual operating costs associated with ferry service.”

Berkeley “would cover only those additional costs to build and maintain the public recreation portion of the pier, as well as the costs to operate the landside parking facilities,” according to the staff report, which goes on to note that “These costs are currently not known.”

In recent years, the city has already been investigating what it would cost to fix the historic pier, which closed because of structural problems. In a draft study that cost the city about $330,000, consultant GHD “identified twelve options [for the pier] ranging in cost from $17 million to $55 million,” according to Tuesday’s staff report. (Berkeleyside requested that study from the city, but staff said shortly after publication that it was not available. More information will be available once the public process kicks off later this year, staff said.)

That money “would be difficult to obtain for solely public recreation uses” if the city elects not to proceed with ferry plans, according to Tuesday’s staff report. That’s at least in part because the waterfront is at a “crisis point,” running about $1 million in debt, with the potential to be “insolvent” by 2020 if changes are not made, staff told council in December.

Staff urged council Tuesday night to vote in favor of the planning process, writing that “the concept of a dual-purpose public pier at the Berkeley Marina is currently the most effective way to bring back the public recreation opportunities of the beloved Berkeley Pier, as well as provide alternative public transportation in the form of new ferry service to an already overburdened Bay Area transportation system. In addition, the potential ferry service could bring more visitors to Berkeley, which could help the financial viability of the Berkeley Waterfront.”

The consent calendar vote was unanimous.

The agreement approved by council allows the city or WETA “to withdraw from the project for any reason.”

The first public meeting is scheduled to take place in October with staff recommendations set to come back to council in June 2020.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...