Stimulus Money to Aid Refit of Golden Gate Transit’s Ferries

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is currently on track to complete a $40 million refit of its seven-ferry fleet, and has also embarked on a program to upgrade its ferry terminals, starting with the facility in Sausalito.

Ferry service at Larkspur Landing began in December 1976 with the first of a new generation of passenger ferries that now provide service to San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District

The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is currently on track to complete a $40 million refit of its seven-ferry fleet, and has also embarked on a program to upgrade its ferry terminals, starting with the facility in Sausalito. Stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—as well as additional funding on the federal, state, and local levels—has made these ambitious projects possible.


Today, Golden Gate Ferries is one of the largest public ferry services on the West Coast, providing fast and efficient transport for almost 2 million passengers annually between the San Francisco Ferry Building and two terminals in Marin County—one in Sausalito and the other at Larkspur Landing. But it wasn’t always that way.


The Rebirth of Ferries on the Bay

In the late 1960s, when bridge congestion was growing, the only public transportation available between San Francisco and Marin County was an aging fleet of Greyhound buses. Longtime residents may also remember the enormous quarry on the winding road along Corte Madera Creek just east of Highway 101. On one side was the quarry and a huge truck-loading structure carrying a scruffy sign that read “Hutchison Co./Crushed Rock”; on the other side of the road, along the bank of Corte Madera Creek, was a dock for loading barges with crushed rock.


Quarry operations ceased in the 1950s, and, since then, dramatic changes have taken place at Larkspur Landing. There is now a vast shopping and residential development where the quarry once was. On the water side, there is a sparkling terminal where high-speed ferries provide service to San Francisco’s Ferry Building.


This remarkable transformation required vision and considerable effort on the part of many individuals, and stands as a testament to the power of long-range transportation planning. One of the people most responsible for the turnaround was San Francisco’s Stephan Leonoudakis, president of the Golden Gate Bridge District’s board in the 1960s. Leonoudakis, now known as “father of the Golden Gate ferries,” became increasingly concerned with the growing traffic on the bridge, and began considering water transit as a potential alternative. By 1969, his efforts resulted in the passage of a State Assembly bill transforming the Golden Gate Bridge District into the “Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District” and directing the transformed agency to develop a transportation plan, including water transportation, for the Highway 101 corridor in Marin County.


Funding was an essential element for the program, and the Golden Gate Bridge District made more than one call with hands outstretched to federal and state agencies for capital and operating funds for the proposed ferry system. Leonoudakis explained, “We started in 1969. Getting the funds for buses, ferries, and terminals required about $450 million plus operating funds of about $250 million.” The first element put in place was the Sausalito Ferry in 1970, using an older boat purchased from San Diego.


But, mounting traffic on Highway 101 pointed to the need for a second terminal in central Marin County. So, the Bridge District targeted the Corte Madera Creek area, with the preferred site just inside of San Quentin Prison. The California Department of Corrections objected, however, and the District had to settle for its second choice—a plot of land along Corte Madera Creek that had been used to load barges with crushed rock. The site purchased by the bridge district became known as Larkspur Landing.


Larkspur Landing: Yesterday and Today 

The Larkspur Landing Ferry Terminal project was not without controversy. First there was the environmental impact of the project. Phyllis Faber of Mill Valley, who wrote the environmental impact report for the project, explained that a major concern was the 50-feet-wide, two-mile-long channel that had to be dredged from the terminal site through mud contaminated by industrial operations, past the San Quentin Prison, and out into the deep water of the Bay. So, it became necessary for the district to spend an additional $2 million to purchase a nearby site, called Muzzi Marsh, to dispose of the dredged materials and create a new marsh. The result was, at that point, the Bay Area’s largest wetlands restoration project.


Next came the selection of firms to design and build the ferry terminal, which was to include not only a passenger terminal but also berths for ferries not in service, a boat maintenance facility, and a parking area that, even today, continues to grow. Contracts for architecture and engineering were awarded to Braccia DeBrer Heglund and Kaiser Engineers, respectively.


Controversy swirled around the design of the eye-catching terminal. It won numerous architectural awards, and the pigeons seemed to enjoy it. But, ferry passengers were less enthusiastic as they were left unprotected from the rain and the pigeons. According to retired bridge engineer Dan Mohn, the Bridge District was left with no alternative but to call upon Kaiser Engineers to design and build a shelter for passengers inside of the original terminal.


Ferry service at Larkspur Landing began in December 1976, with the first of a new generation of passenger ferries that now provide service to San Francisco. The initial 750-passenger, all-aluminum, single-hull ferries were called “Spauldings,” after the Naval architect who designed them. The ships were built by a yard in San Diego that not only used aluminum produced by Kaiser Aluminum, but also employed innovative aluminum welding techniques developed by the firm’s research laboratory in Pleasanton. In fact, these ships were likely among the first commercial boats to have been made of welded aluminum. (In the interest of full disclosure: At the time, the author was a member of Kaiser’s public relations staff, and I am proud to have played a role in the inaugural ferry run that included many dignitaries from San Francisco and Marin counties.)


As ridership grew, the Spauldings were repowered, and high-speed catamarans were added to the fleet: first the M.V. Del Norte in 1998 and then the M.V. Mendocino in 2001. These ships cut the commute time from 45 minutes to only 35 minutes and proved to be very popular. Both catamarans were built in Washington shipyards that have developed an expertise in aluminum shipbuilding techniques.


A Complete Rebuilding of the Fleet in the Next Five Years

Golden Gate’s ferry fleet now consists of the three original Spauldings, the two high-speed catamarans and two additional high-speed catamarans that were purchased last year from Washington State Ferries for a total of only $4 million. Although relatively new, these vessels still require refurbishing to meet the district’s need for 400-passenger ferries and repowering to meet the state’s emission standards. One of the two, the M.V. Chinook, remains in Washington where the refurbishing and repowering is expected to be done, while the other, the M.V. Snohomish, has been brought to the Bay Area and renamed the M.V. Napa. It will be put into service temporarily while work on the Del Norte is completed, and then be refurbished and repowered itself.


“We will actually complete the rebuilding of the entire ferry system in the next five years,” said Jim Swindler, who manages Golden Gate’s ferry fleet. It started in 2007 with the refurbishing of the Marin, one of the older single-hull Spauldings that is now operating on the Sausalito-to-San Francisco run. That work is being followed by refurbishing and repowering the four catamarans, and is expected to conclude in 2011 with the repowering of the San Francisco, another Spaulding single-hull boat, for use in service to the AT&T Park and other special occasions. That leaves the third of the older Spauldings with an uncertain future.


The $40 million refurbishing and repowering program for the Golden Gate ferry fleet was triggered not only by the demands of a growing ridership, but also by diesel emission standards established by California’s Air Resources Board earlier this year. These new regulations require that engines of commercial harborcraft, including ferries, be repowered to meet EPA’s Tier II emission standards. When that work is completed, Golden Gate Ferries will boast one of the country’s greenest ferry fleets, especially with the Bridge District’s additional mandates that its ferries actually surpass the emissions standard and, additionally, that its engines include biodiesel capability.


Built in Washington State

All of Golden Gate’s aluminum catamarans have been built at shipyards in Washington and brought to the Bay Area. “It takes $50,000 to get a boat down here from Seattle under its own power,” said Swindler. “We don’t do it ourselves, but instead contract it out.” Because of that cost, maintenance and shipyard work on the boats has generally been performed in the Bay Area, and almost exclusively by Bay Ship & Yacht in Alameda, the only local yard that specializes in maintaining both aluminum and steel harbor craft. 


One would think that, with the rich shipbuilding history of the bay, especially during World War II, there would be plenty of shipyards to choose from. But, most of the old yards have closed, and the Navy has pulled out of the Bay Area. Until recently, BAE Systems San Francisco Ship Repair (formerly the historic San Francisco Drydock) did some work on aluminum boats, but now the yard is focused on cruise ships and tankers. 


Fortunately for the growing fleet of ferries and tour boats on the bay, a new shipyard, Bay Ship & Yacht, was established in the Bay Area in 1977. Initially, it focused on maintaining wooden fishing boats, but it has expanded its yard in Alameda to accommodate both aluminum and steel commercial vessels, tour boats, and the growing ferry fleet. The firm’s general manager, Bill Elliott, commented, “We have developed all of the capabilities required for work on aluminum ferries, and have dry-docked and worked on all of the Golden Gate Ferries, except those that were recently purchased from Washington State.”

High-speed catamarans were added to the Golden Gate fleet with the M.V. Del Norte in 1998 and the M.V. Mendicino (pictured above) in 2001. Photo by Joel Williams