Ron Cowan, Noted Ferry Advocate and Harbor Bay Developer, Dies at 82

The passing of Ron Cowan, ferry advocate extraordinaire, gives pause. Ron fought for ferry service before it was cool. Long before, in fact, and pretty much all on his own.

Ron Cowan’s vision of comprehensive ferry service included 25 to 40 terminals throughout the Bay Area that provide service with 15- to 30-minute intervals throughout the day and into the wee hours of the morning.

By Bobby Winston

Published: February, 2017


The passing of Ron Cowan, ferry advocate extraordinaire, gives pause. Ron fought for ferry service before it was cool. Long before, in fact, and pretty much all on his own.


He largely succeeded and that’s amazing. There was a time, I’m told, that people who build things were celebrated; now our civic heroes are those who block things. For 40 years Ron Cowan ran a gauntlet of naysayers and entrenched vested interests to rally, inveigle and force forward by dint of sheer personal will his beloved cause of “comprehensive ferry service.”


That was his rallying cry: “comprehensive regional ferry service.” His passion inspired many, including me and a murderer’s row of political heavyweights, but rankled a few as well. The wrong few, as it turned out.


So Ron got sidelined and did not get the credit or honors he deserved. The reasons are complex, like the man. The political Ouija board did him in, but there is no denying that his quixotic vision—and it was his vision—of comprehensive regional ferry service is becoming real, and just as surely materially improving the Bay Area quality of life.


It took many years, but a public ceremony finally did take place last year, at which WETA’s new regional maintenance center in Alameda was named after Ron Cowan. By that time Ron was frail—but, as always, impeccably dressed and in full command of the moment—and he took the stage to go once more into the breach for his beloved cause.


He was a complicated man; often a challenge, always a paradox. He was our champion and, with his ferry advocacy, he served the Bay Area public in a way few ever will.


Ron Cowan has been the subject of many articles in Bay Crossings over the years. When we came across this interview with Bay Crossings founder Bobby Winston from July 2000, shortly after the formation of the WTA, the predecessor of the current WETA, we felt that reprinting it would be a very fitting tribute. Here we get a glimpse of the significance of his vision for ferry service in the Bay Area, in his own words from over 16 years ago:


You’ve had a rather colorful life. Could you briefly recap your career for our readers?

While I am not sure what you mean by colorful, I have spent a good deal of time in the public eye. I came from humble beginnings and the universe has provided me with many opportunities. I have always attempted to execute my endeavors with a sense of style.


In 1959, I opened Tweed’s Menswear with a partner, Carl Eckhardt, at the South Shore Shopping Center in Alameda. Even though I went on to do other things, I retained my 50 percent ownership in Tweed’s for 35 years—which accounts for my continued interest in fashion.


In 1963, I formed Doric Properties, a real estate development company. Doric has developed approximately 6,000 residential units and two million square feet of commercial space. Doric has been the managing general partner and master developer of Harbor Bay Isle, a 1,000-acre self-contained community in Alameda. Doric has won 17 local, state and national awards for excellence in connection with the Harbor Bay Isle development.


In 1959, I saved KJAZ Radio from extinction by buying it when its license was being revoked. I continued to subsidize it for the next 15 years until I was no longer able to do so.


In 1981, I produced the first San Francisco International Jazz Festival from Davies Symphony Hall and broadcast it live via satellite to Japan.


In 1983, following the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, I conceived and directed, in partnership with Pacific Telecom, the formation of the Bay Area Teleport and Harbor Bay Telecommunications—a privately-owned, non-regulated telephone company and regional distribution system employing digital microwave and fiber optic cable throughout the Bay Area.


In 1985, I founded Harbor Bay Maritime for the purpose of providing high-speed ferry service between Harbor Bay Isle and San Francisco.


I served on the California World Trade Commission for four years in Governor Brown’s administration.


And most recently, I was honored to serve as chair of the Bay Area Water Transit Task Force. In the course of my work, I have formed friendships with a number of powerful political figures. Willie Brown is now [in 2000] mayor of San Francisco, Bill Lockyer now is the attorney general of California. Jerry Brown is now mayor of Oakland. John Burton is now president of the California Senate. Don Perata is now a senator from Oakland, and so on. These relationships were invaluable in successfully advancing the vision of a comprehensive regional water transit system.



Is it true that you used a helicopter to commute to work?

Yes, my home is in Marin County and my office is in Alameda County and, for 22 years, I commuted by flying my own helicopter.



With your own helicopter to get you back and forth to work, what got you interested in promoting widespread ferry service?

Well, I’m not sure which came first. I would characterize it as a confluence of various observations. At Harbor Bay Isle, we look at dramatic views of the San Francisco skyline every day. You wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the value of our holdings would be significantly improved, along with the quality of life for the residents of Harbor Bay, if they could take high-speed ferry service directly to San Francisco and avoid congestion on the bridges and highways.


However, when we decided that we would like to have ferry service serving Harbor Bay, we ran into a major problem. Apparently, when the bridges were built back in the 1930s, in order to protect the investors who purchased the bonds, the bonds had codicils prohibiting other commercial crossings of the Bay including ferry service. In order to initiate new ferry service, we would have to persuade the state legislature to refinance the bridge bonds and remove those codicils.


In order to focus public attention and support for this change in legislation, we brought over a British-built hovercraft for a two-year demonstration project. During those two years, we carried 25,000 passengers free of charge, a great many were community leaders and public officials, and asked them to write letters to the legislature supporting the proposed legislation. The legislation was carried by then State Senator Bill Lockyer, a longtime ferry advocate. Ultimately, we were successful. The legislature refinanced the bonds, removing the codicils, thereby paving the way for the ferry service we have today.


The concept of the Bay as a transportation spine was reinforced every day during my flight to work. I would get up to 5,000 feet and look down on the Bay Area, and it became obvious to me that the Bay was a wonderful transportation spine connecting the entire region—and it was practically empty. Reinforced images are very powerful, and to look down on this image every day made it clear to me that we here in the Bay Area have an opportunity to create a truly world-class regional water transportation system.


This vision was reinforced when I would travel to other parts of the world, particularly Hong Kong, Sydney and Vancouver, demonstrating how other metropolitan areas had taken advantage of their waterways to develop regional transportation systems. I often thought that when I had the time, I would like to lead the charge to create such a system.



So is this what led to the creation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force that studied the issues?

Yes, several years ago, I stopped going to the office in favor of telecommuting. That gave me more time. My thoughts turned to public service and the creation of a comprehensive regional water transit system. Bill Lockyer, then president of the California Senate, upon hearing of my desires, invited me to write up my vision. I hired John Eels, a respected transportation consultant, to assist me, and together we created a white paper and sent it to Sacramento.


Lockyer then introduced me to Sunne McPeak, president of the Bay Area Council, who plays a prominent role in formulating transportation public policy. Sunne and I met, found we agreed on the importance of the concept, share the same vision and decided to become partners in leading the initiative.


Lockyer caused the senate to pass Resolution 19, authored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, providing for the Bay Area Council to form a task force with three responsibilities. First, to develop a conceptual design for a world-class comprehensive regional water transit system; second, to recommend a financing plan for both the capital to create the system and a permanent source of subsidies for its continued operation; and third, to recommend an institutional structure to create and operate the system.



What kinds of people were on the task force, and what was the process?

There were 52 prominent community leaders on the task force, very high-powered, competent, and respected people, 12 mayors, including Mayor Brown, a number of county supervisors, the CEOs of a number of major employers, labor leaders, academic leaders and environment leaders. We held public meetings all around the Bay over a two-year period. We studied other water transit systems around the world and met with management of local land-based agencies and the Coast Guard, U.S. Maritime Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation and CalTrans, to name a few.



Can you summarize what the task force came up with?

Our studies made it clear that a comprehensive regional water transit system is the last and perhaps most important piece in the puzzle of creating a truly integrated regional transportation system. This new water transit system would add invaluable mobility to the entire region. With congestion on the bridges and freeways increasing exponentially every year, and with the new technological improvements of fast ferries, it’s much faster to use ferries than to drive.


The key is the intermodal connection—how to get people from their homes to the ferry terminals and from the ferry terminals to their ultimate destinations. In order to get people out of their cars and into a public transportation system, they must know that they can get to wherever they want to go on time and on schedule, conveniently and economically, and faster than they can do it by car.


The work of the task force showed conclusively that if you could create a comprehensive system of 25 to 40 terminals connecting all parts of the Bay with schedules that provided anywhere from 15- to 30-minute service throughout the day and into the wee hours of the morning, and if you had the appropriate system in place to get people to and from those terminals, people would, in fact, abandon their cars and use the system.



What do you think the most important priority for the authority should be?

Well, there are a number of priorities, and I think they need to be advanced in parallel. First and foremost, the authority is a regional board charged with designing, building and operating a comprehensive regional water transit system. The composition of the new authority will include representation of a number of locally elected officials whose constituencies will want them to protect local interests at the expense of a comprehensive regional system.


When we recommended to the legislature that the terms of the authority members be eight years, the intention was to provide them with a certain level of political independence that would insulate them from parochial interests. The agreement early on by the new authority that its interests are regional is of profound importance. In that context, it’s imperative that the South Bay be brought into the initiative. The San Jose-Silicon Valley community is not represented in the makeup of the authority. Without active and energetic participation by the South Bay-Silicon Valley, a regional system will never happen. The ability to connect more reasonably priced housing in the East Bay and North Bay with jobs in the South Bay is very important.


It’s impossible to overstate the importance of intermodal connectivity. You can’t turn ferry terminals on the Bay into huge parking lots. People need to get to these terminals by means other than cars. I envision fleets of thousands of small shuttle buses that would go into neighborhoods to bring people to the ferry. But whether it be CalTrain, BART, “kiss and ride,” car share, shuttles or whatever, the ability of the land-based transportation providers to make a connection to the ferry is critical. The authority will have to find a way of energizing the leadership of the 29 other transportation systems that exist in the Bay Area to provide a seamless, intermodal connective network. Many governmental officials have felt for a long time that a super-agency, acting as an umbrella for all of the other 29 agencies, is what is needed to create a truly efficient regional intermodal transportation system. Politically, that’s probably unlikely. The Water Transit Authority, however, by executing intermodal transit agreements with each of these 29 other transportation systems, has the ability to create from the bottom up what may not be accomplished from the top down. Consider, if the authority has an agreement with SamTrans and also an agreement with Vallejo, you now have a connection between Vallejo and the Peninsula. Same thing with the Golden Gate Bridge District in the North Bay and AC Transit in the East Bay. So water transit can be the missing piece of the puzzle, effectively tying together all the transportation systems in the Bay Area.



Is water transit the solution of the region’s transit woes?

I don’t know that it is the only solution, but I do know that it may be the most important part of the solution. Traffic congestion in the Bay Area is growing exponentially, right along with population and job growth. The regional transportation system is clearly undersized and uncoordinated. So, a comprehensive intermodal water transit system is obviously an opportunity to take cars off the freeways and bridges and create new capacity; and most importantly, I think it has the potential of creating genuine regional mobility.



So, now, what’s next for you?

Who knows? The universe always has a way of identifying my next calling. It will come.

Ron Cowan, seen here being congratulated by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, was honored in 2016 when WETA broke ground on a new ferry operations center in Alameda to be named in honor of Cowan. Photo by Joel Williams