Opinion: After years of neglect, the city is chasing a ferry tale at the Berkeley Marina

Maintaining the recreational facilities is clearly not a priority, but spending millions to let commuters take over the marina is.    

The director of the Port of Oakland used to say, “Don’t tell me what your priorities are, show me your budget and I’ll know what your priorities are.” Good advice to keep in mind as I tell you this Ferry Fairytale. The city of Berkeley, which for years has refused to spend enough money to maintain the marina, now is willing to spend nearly $30 million to turn it into a park and ride lot for ferry passengers.

I was appointed to the Waterfront Commission in 2005. I was a long-term user of the Berkeley Marina as a windsurfer. Indeed, I’d already helped the city secure grants for new docks in the South Basin. After my first meeting, Brad Smith, an aide to former City Councilmember Linda Maio and chair of the commission, took me to coffee and showed me his “mondo” spreadsheet. It demonstrated how costs at the marina were rising faster than revenues and that the marina fund had not accumulated enough money to take care of the increasing maintenance costs. Some type of structural fix was needed, or the marina would go broke. For years, Brad had tried to convince the city council to invest in the marina, without avail. I set to work helping the city secure funding to extend the Bay Trail along University Avenue and through the marina. That project, now complete, brought an accessible restroom for the many who ride the Bay Trail on adaptive bikes and diverse users: joggers, cyclists, families on bikes and scooters, and musicians practicing on the new benches.

Measures fall short

In 2013, the Waterfront Commission was combined with the Parks Commission to form the Parks and Waterfront Commission, and I was elected the first chair. The director of Parks and Recreation briefed the new commission on the unfunded repairs needed in Berkeley’s parks, a presentation he had been making to city councils for some time. He estimated that the city parks had an immediate need of more than $40 million. After some digging, a group of commissioners and concerned citizens concluded that the tax measure that funded parks had steadily been losing purchasing power. Not only was an infusion of capital needed, but the staff to maintain the parks was only 2/3 of its former size, and three more positions were slated to be eliminated in the budget. We held a series of meetings around the city to learn about the public’s support for our parks and convinced the City Council to put Measure F, an increase in the parks tax, on the ballot in 2014. We campaigned hard, showing voters pictures like the closed trellis at the Rose Garden, and the measure received 74% of the vote in favor of an increase in the parks tax.  

While Measure F prevented further layoffs and generated about $400,000 a year for repairs, it was clear that more funding was needed if the parks were to provide for the existing and increasing population. The Council put Measure T1 on the ballot in 2016, and members of the commission and concerned citizens again ran a successful campaign, this time garnering the support of 86.6% of the voters. Those two measures have paid for the restoration of tidal circulation at Aquatic Park, improvements now underway on University Avenue, restoration of the Rose Garden, and dozens of other projects throughout the city. The remaining bond funds have been allocated, and construction of various projects is underway.

Between 2005 and 2021, Berkeley’s biennial budget increased from $400 million to over a billion dollars. Most years, city staff presented a list of unfunded liabilities in the parks, city buildings, the marina, the streets, and the stormwater system. Most years, the City Council accepted the reports — and spent nothing on the parks, city buildings, the marina, the streets, and the stormwater system. The lack of success in getting the Council to put funds into parks led to Measure F. Parks, streets and the marina were just not priorities despite what was written in Council newsletters.    

While Measure F and T1 have helped slow the degradation of the parks, streets, and stormwater systems, little of that money has gone to the marina. Instead, the marina has had to rely on the marina fund, revenues from the leases, most notably the DoubleTree Hotel. Of course, that hotel also generates a temporary occupancy tax (TOT), $3 million in a good year, which goes into the general fund, not back into maintaining the marina. But the marina still needs an estimated $113 million in repairs and has a structural deficit in maintenance estimated by the staff at $800,000 each year. The poor condition of marina facilities has led to an exodus of boaters who rent slips, reducing revenues by about $300,000 a year. The marina staff has dropped from 21 to 14, leading to reduced maintenance and fewer repairs.

Structural problems persist

I spent the last seven years trying to get the city to update the marina master plan and deal with the emerging structural problems. We knew that the lease of the Hs Lordships building was nearly up and that it would be necessary to update the plan if new revenue-generating leases were to be issued. Direct appeals to Council members and the city’s economic development division failed, and the marina drifted along, with each year pushing the marina fund closer to bankruptcy. Now Hs Lordships has been closed for more than three years, reducing revenue by another $80,000 a year.  

Six years ago, Berkeley’s pier was closed. In the intervening years, the Council has not put a penny into a fund for the eventual restoration of the pier. Finally, in 2019, work began to update the plan for the marina. Unfortunately, the entire visible effort from that plan to date is a public relations campaign for a commuter terminal. The City Council wants to transform a portion of the marina originally intended as a recreational space into a commuter terminal for a small number of ferry riders. In three years, no plans for other changes at the marina to cover more diverse recreational uses or deal with the structural deficit have been made public.  

But won’t the ferry help? The Council, city staff, and staff from the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA), which manages ferry service on the Bay, certainly want you to think so. In fact, WETA staff approached the city in 2017 after the pier was closed, arguing that a joint ferry and recreational pier might be the best way to restore the recreational pier. What seemed promising when initially offered has turned out to be illusory. We also know that in Jack London Square, with its numerous restaurants, the Port of Oakland still subsidizes the ferry and can’t point to any increase in economic activity that the ferry has created. 

The recreational pier that was closed six years ago was 3,000 feet long. WETA has proposed to construct only 300 feet of pier for a ferry, leaving the city on the hook to extend the pier far enough to be useful for recreation, with a city cost of just under $14 million. There’s more. The Council’s agreement with WETA in 2019 committed the city to pay for the recreational pier, permitting costs, and any public recreational facilities. Most shoreline development along San Francisco Bay is required to improve public access. Usually, that is paid for by the developer, which, in this case, would be WETA. But the city has negotiated that away, signing up for an additional $15 million, according to the cost estimates provided by the Council on Dec. 7. 

After 16 years of refusing to invest in the marina that generates $3 million annually in tax revenues from the TOT, the city now wants to spend nearly $30 million — to subsidize commuters. Berkeley might well be tapped to pay for much more if it wants a ferry terminal —the current WETA budget only shows $30 million of the $122 million estimated costs for the Berkeley project and notes that is not the expected cost of the whole project. At least 16 years of adopted budgets have made it clear that the city cares about ferries — not about the condition of the marina.

Subsidizing fares

But wait, don’t ferry riders pay their own way? Not remotely. Neither WETA staff nor city staff were willing to talk about the level of subsidy that a ferry rider gets during the public meetings. It seems like WETA staff has stopped providing information on the level of subsidy to their board. The “Short Range Transit Plan FY 2012-FY 2021” (see page 75) calculates the subsidy at $8 per passenger for FY 2010-2011. At that rate, the annual subsidy for a ferry passenger is $4,000! The more recent “2020 Short Range Transit Plan FY 2019-20 to 2028-29” estimates the operating cost of the Berkeley terminal at $5 million — or $5,000 per seat! That document shows net operating subsidies for FY 2015-16 of $12.7 million, FY 2016-17 of $14.7 million, FY 17-18 of $17.4 million, and FY 2018-19 of $19.3 million (see Figure 5.3 on page 5-9). That’s a subsidy of $64.1 million in four years to try to convince people to ride the ferry.  

WETA only calculates the direct subsidy and does not account for either the capital that goes into their terminals and facilities or the eventual replacement of their ferries. For Berkeley, the estimated cost of the new terminal is over $122 million. That’s a capital cost of $122,000 for each expected passenger! For that amount of money, we could buy them each a Tesla and have a lower carbon impact.  

But isn’t this the only way to fix the pier? Berkeley could seek funding from the state surplus to help repair the pier since it serves many in the region outside Berkeley. But the city has refused to do that, perhaps because it would undermine the narrative that this is the only way to fix the pier.  

There are more subsidies and more paid by the city. The land that WETA seeks to lease from the city could support one or perhaps two more restaurants. Currently, Skate’s generates more than $200,000 in lease revenue in a good year. The city is not just paying $30 million in costs for a terminal; it is forgoing up to $400,000 in revenue. That’s another $400 annual subsidy per ferry rider.

There are certainly environmental issues associated with dredging a new channel, filling the Bay, taking parking meant for recreational users, and turning one of Berkeley’s parks into a commuter terminal. The impact on the park is critical; in 1986, Berkeley voters passed Measure L, mandating the city to maintain its parks and requiring a public vote before a park could be used as anything but a park. Rather than comply with Measure L, City Council’s for 16 years that I’ve been involved have talked about parks as a priority — and left them unfunded, cutting staff and postponing repairs. They have made their priorities clear and will try to avoid the required election to push a ferry terminal in the marina. Maintaining the recreational facilities is clearly not a priority, but spending millions to let commuters take over the marina is.    

Holding the City Council accountable

I resigned from the Parks and Waterfront Commission on Dec. 8. I intend to spend the next several years making sure that WETA and the city give honest answers about the environmental impacts and the level of subsidy involved in the current proposal. I also intend to make sure that the City Council complies with Measure L and submits this proposal to the citizens for a vote. An ongoing subsidy of this magnitude deserves scrutiny and facts, not a public relations campaign — and cannot happen without ratification by the voters.  

Jim McGrath is a former Parks and Waterfront commissioner, who also served on the Bay Trail Board for about a decade. He has windsurfed and kayaked out of the Berkeley Marina for more than 40 years.