The Berkeley Marina may one day be home to two electric ferries and a pier rebuilt in the shape of a sword — but exactly how the $122 million project will be funded remains an open question.
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Earlier this month, council members and the public heard the latest report from city staff and WETA (the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority) about how the Berkeley Marina might someday be transformed.
“The marina has a lot of challenges and this isn’t expected to be a panacea,” said Christina Erickson, Berkeley’s deputy parks director, but a new pier and ferry service will be an “important part of the solution.”
The Dec. 7 worksession was the first presentation to the Berkeley City Council of the preferred concept for the city’s extensive pier-ferry project. The city closed its historic pier in 2015 due to structural problems.
“I’m all aboard for the sword,” said Councilmember Lori Droste. She said the concept as presented balances many different needs and “really checks all the boxes.”
Staff held numerous public meetings throughout 2021, and also conducted a community survey, to determine how long the new pier should be and where to put it. The city said it ultimately chose a location — the same place as the old pier — and size — 1,480 feet long and 22 feet wide — that took those factors into consideration. One key issue was attempting to minimize impacts to existing recreation users, staff said, such as windsurfers and boaters.
The plan also includes a new ferry terminal and two ferry docks, so one electric ferry could charge while the other one operates. There would be benches, a public plaza, and more educational opportunities, such as interpretive signage.
On the land side, the plan is to improve “multimodal” access for pedestrians, cyclists and buses. Ferry parking will be confined to a 250-car lot to minimize impacts elsewhere in the marina, staff said.
Landside improvements are slated to include a new water access point for recreation, a public shoreline, fish-cleaning tables, bike lockers, a seating area and more. The goal is to “reactivate” the area, said staff, and make it safer and more enjoyable for everyone.
“The waterfront is a tired and scary place for many,” says Ali Endress, waterfront manager. The pier and ferry would be a “fresh new demonstration that this waterfront is cared for.”
“Sometimes it takes something huge to spark a hard or necessary change,” Endress said.
The current conceptual ferry schedule envisions 14 weekday trips from Berkeley to San Francisco: eight peak-direction trips in the morning and six in the afternoon. It would involve two vessels and four crews. Headways, the time between ferries, are currently set at 35 minutes to almost an hour. There would be fewer trips on weekends.
City and WETA staff said parking at the waterfront will need to be carefully managed. WETA’s current model estimates that about 31% of commuters will drive to the new Berkeley ferry terminal, while 15% each will carpool or use a kiss-and-ride approach. The city will need to cap ferry parking and have an active parking management plan, as well as robust programs that provide incentives for biking, walking and public transit.
“We know that parking is an issue,” said WETA consultant Bill Hurrell. Encouraging fewer people to drive, he said, “requires a proactive approach.”
City staff said 88% of the people it surveyed earlier this year supported the concept of a new ferry. But people have raised a number of concerns, including about parking, and whether there will be room for both recreation users and commuters. The city’s position is that all the needs can be accommodated with existing parking.
Community members have also raised concerns about whether ferry service is a good use of public funds, whether the city should hit pause on the project until its overall marina planning process is complete, and whether the preferred concept plan would even be allowed given current regulations.
“I don’t see how this thing can possibly pass the regulatory challenges. The numbers just don’t work for parking,” said frequent waterfront user (and occasional Berkeleyside contributor) Paul Kamen. Kamen said too much burden is being placed on recreational users rather than on commuters: “This is completely backwards.”
Others questioned the ridership models, economic estimates and parking plans.
“This is a park, the land that you are talking about exists only because it was filled for recreation,” said Jim McGrath, a longtime Berkeley parks commissioner. “It was not filled for parking for a ferry terminal. The big concern I have is — the level of subsidy is scandalous.”
Another parks commissioner, Claudia Kawczynska, said she had been a fan of the plans initially, but that had changed: “My enthusiasm has not only waned but has been replaced by skepticism and distrust.”
Nearly all the public comments were from people with concerns about how the city’s plans will proceed as well as the potential outsized impacts on recreational users.
“There’s a lot of explaining to be done,” said speaker Jeffrey Finn. “I don’t think you should rush into this.”
Rushing into anything seems unlikely given the financial constraints of the project. Staff said it may be six years before ferry service could be up and running.
“The big question is how can we pay for all of this?” said Roger Miller, an analyst and project manager for the city of Berkeley. “It’s quite a big project.”
Regional Measure 3, the new Bay Bridge toll, is likely to help, but is currently tied up in the courts. The legal challenge is expected to be resolved in 2022, Miller said. Other potential funding sources include city funds, Measure BB in Alameda County, Caltrans programs and federal infrastructure money from the Jobs Act’s Passenger Ferry Grant.
This last bucket “could be the biggest one of all,” Miller said.
Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said the city should be “aggressive” in pursuing funding from the state and federal government: “I know it is a significant price tag.”
Kesarwani also noted how she and Councilmember Terry Taplin — whose districts span West Berkeley — had asked the state for a $15 million earmark for Berkeley in the next budget cycle. Word on that won’t likely come until May or June at the earliest, and perhaps not until October 2022.
Council members said the new ferry could play an important role in Berkeley’s disaster preparedness efforts, as in the case of evacuation or should something happen to the Bay Bridge.
It’s “one of the most exciting projects that we have going,” Councilmember Susan Wengraf said.
Councilmember Rigel Robinson, a frequent sailor at the Berkeley Marina, said he hopes the city will prioritize minimizing impacts on existing park users as plans develop. He also called out language in the staff report acknowledging that restoring the pier has inherent value for the community, separate from any ferry plans.
“I am such a big fan of the sword,” he said. “I am 100% sure that it will bring me to tears the first time I set foot onto a new pier and ride that big beautiful boat.”
Robinson said he had spoken to many marina users who have told him they are worried the project “spells doom for the future of the marina” as a nature-centered space for recreational activities.
“They are right to be worried,” he said. But Robinson also said he believes staff does take their concerns seriously.
On Thursday, Scott Ferris, Berkeley’s parks director, told Berkeleyside he concurred.
“We love our users. We understand their issues and are trying to do the best we can to mitigate them,” he said. “At the same time, we needed to finish the project. And that’s what we’ve done.”
As part of its next steps, the city is working to bring more shuttle and AC Transit service to the marina, and step up parking management to encourage alternative modes of transportation. Officials have already expressed support for launching paid parking at the marina for all but short-term users, but no plan has yet been adopted.
In the next few months, council is expected to review the final version of the preferred concept. At some point, officials will decide how much of the project to fund in the first stage.
On Dec. 7, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he knows the Berkeley Marina is a fragile place that must be protected. But he said the new projects will be a “game-changer for the waterfront.”
“People are concerned about change,” Arreguín said. “It’s understandable.”