Opinion: Why Berkeley should stop the ferry project

The biggest issue with the proposed ferry service is parking, which doesn’t support the influx of commuters not to mention recreational users.

The Berkeley City Council is poised to negotiate with the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which operates ferry service on the San Francisco Bay, in December and January for a ferry terminal on the pier at the Berkeley Marina. Despite sounding good at first glance, this project should be opposed for at least three reasons: 

  1. A WETA-scale ferry would turn the marina into a crowded commuter hub, and make the marina’s rich blend of recreational activities difficult or impossible to access.  
  2. A ferry commute to San Francisco would have a dramatically higher carbon footprint than BART or bus. 
  3. The projected cost of $83.5 million is a huge expenditure that benefits a relatively small number of people. 

Planned ferry ridership and parking

WETA’s weekday ridership goal for the Berkeley-San Francisco ferry is 915 passengers per day, and the weekend ridership goal is 1,746 passengers per day. 

One major problem is that there is not enough parking and the projects sets an unrealistically high goal for people to get to the ferry on foot, bike, shuttle or other means.

The project plan is to use the 251-space parking lot on the Hs Lordship’s peninsula for ferry patrons. That means on weekdays, 664 people are projected to arrive without cars. That’s 73% of ferry riders arriving by bike, scooter, bus, carpool, rideshare or on foot, an astonishing goal. On weekends, with 1,746 passengers, the number would be 86%, even more astonishing. 

How are the 73% and 86% numbers to be achieved? The workshop #3   presentation suggests: 

  • Shuttles from neighborhoods and BART
  • Increased AC Transit service
  • Lots of bike lockers
  • Safe bike routes at Gilman and Powell and University
  • Incentives for biking, walking, and transit
  • Active Parking Management

A great list, but I don’t believe that the 73% and 86% goals will be achieved. The Alameda WETA terminal had a 250-space lot for 350 riders — that’s 100 or 28% projected to arrive without cars, way below the 73% or 86% WETA plans for Berkeley, and evidently, they failed to meet even the 28% goal. A quick web search yielded six articles on WETA’s Alameda parking problems (hyperlinks:  1 2 3 4 5 6). One of the articles said this:

Mayor Trish Spencer said no easy solution exists to balance the wants of both residents and ferry riders.

“We just don’t have enough parking out there,” Spencer said. “We are circling back and looking at the issue again. But we are also trying to encourage more people to walk, ride their bike, that kind of stuff.”

We don’t want a Berkeley WETA project that ends up like that.

Parking in the South Sailing Basin  

Parking for recreational use of the South Sailing Basin is in the South Cove East Parking Lot and South Cove West Parking Lot (see picture below). These two parking lots have about 100 parking spaces each and are used by boat sailors, windsurfers, foil boarders, paddle boarders, kayakers, swimmers, parents with children headed for Adventure Playground or Shorebird Park, and customers of the marina’s fishing charter boats. Some of these people can and do take public transit to the marina, but many have equipment or kids or other constraints that make automobiles the only practical way to get there.

What happens when too many ferry riders drive their cars?

Let’s say on a gloomy weekday summer morning the plan to have 664 of the 915 commuters arrive without cars works well, but not perfectly: 100 of those 664 no-car commuters bring their cars.

The 251-space lot fills up, and the 100 unexpected drivers are suddenly looking for a place to park, afraid to miss their ferry and be late to work. Desperate to park anywhere they can, they fill half of the 200 spaces in the two South Cove recreational lots. In summer, these lots usually get full, so the 100 unexpected drivers will keep roughly 100 people away from recreation in the South Cove. And when that gloomy summer morning turns into a glorious, windy day those 100 people will be unable to enjoy it.

Active parking management: Could it work?

How might we keep the 100 unexpected drivers from parking in recreational use parking lots? The likeliest choice is 4- or 5-hour time limits in recreational lots with expensive tickets to enforce them. But once the 100 unexpected drivers are in the marina, they won’t go home and ride their bikes back in, they will park in recreational spaces and pay the tickets. Over time they may become no-car commuters, but until they do, they will block recreational access. 

Expensive tickets may slowly improve parking compliance, but they will not increase happiness at the marina: ferry riders will be upset when they get them, and recreational marina users who overstay the time limit will also be upset. 

Traffic   

At the end of the evening commute, each returning ferry will disembark a boatload of passengers who will take cars, busses, bikes and drop-off vehicles and head east on University Avenue ready to get home. University at Frontage Road is already seriously congested during the afternoon commute, and 50-100 vehicles backed up there will create major daily traffic jams. 

What happened to that relaxing ferry ride to work?

The proposed ferry set out to give 915 people a relaxing ride to work — but there will be big battles to force them into difficult first-mile commute modes, big tickets waiting to punish their parking missteps, and big traffic getting to and from the ferry. Probably still better than the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza, but not nearly as relaxing as if the ferry terminal hadn’t been shoe-horned into a marina that doesn’t have room for it. And the ferry has a high carbon footprint relative to BART or bus, so you can’t win environmental brownie points even if you walk all the way from Shattuck Avenue to the ferry. 

The thousands of people for whom the marina is their recreation and/or peaceful sanctuary will find it transformed into a much less agreeable place:  you hope today isn’t the day you just can’t find a parking space anywhere, or you find a space but worry-watch the time so you don’t get a ticket for overstaying the 5-hour limit, and you fight through the daily traffic from those 915 or 1,746 people getting to and from the ferry. Also better than the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza, but this is not your commute, how did this place get so screwed up?

Do we really want to spend $83.5 million dollars for this? Let’s stop this project!

Gordon Stout is a retired mechanical engineer, designer and windsurfer.