Long-Awaited Ferry Renaissance Comes to Richmond

On January 10, with a large dose of pomp and circumstance, the City of Richmond, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) marked the launch of Richmond ferry service and the opening of the Richmond Ferry Terminal with a celebration in the Craneway Pavilion.

Photo by Joel Williams

BY JOEL WILLIAMS

Published: February, 2019

 

On January 10, with a large dose of pomp and circumstance, the City of Richmond, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA) marked the launch of Richmond ferry service and the opening of the Richmond Ferry Terminal with a celebration in the Craneway Pavilion.

 

The well-attended event featured Richmond High School’s stellar 100-piece marching band and string ensemble; speeches by assorted dignitaries; and a sumptuous spread of tacos, salad and cupcakes. There was even a small group of Richmond’s women shipbuilders from World War II—known as the original Rosie the Riveters—on hand for the festivities.

 

“For as long as I have been on the city council—23 years—we have been advocating for permanent ferry service,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt. “It’s been a prolonged effort including many agencies and local officials, but we are finally here. Richmond evolved as a waterfront community, and ferries are a significant part of our heritage. It’s thrilling to be back in business.”

 

The new Richmond ferry service continues the ambitious expansion of WETA’s regional San Francisco Bay Ferry system, which will help alleviate traffic congestion and increase WETA’s emergency water transit response capabilities.

 

“We are thrilled to launch new ferry service between Richmond and San Francisco,” said Nina Rannells, WETA’s executive director. “This new weekday commute service will improve the lives of East Bay residents by getting them off of the congested freeways and onto the Bay with a safe, reliable and enjoyable alternative.”

 

The San Francisco Bay Ferry Richmond service provides four weekday morning runs to San Francisco, four weekday evening runs to Richmond, and limited return service (see full schedule on page 20). A bulletin board allowed guests at the ceremony to post wish lists in connection with the new ferry service. By far the most frequent wish: “Please expand service to weekends!”

 

The Richmond Ferry Terminal project included the construction of an accessible gangway with a new ramping system, float and piles, a passenger shelter and the development and reconfiguration of a 362-space paved parking lot. WETA also installed a new ADA-compliant kayak launch ramp and improved shoreline access at Ford Point.

 

 

A Long Time Coming

 

Richmond has a long history of ferry service dating back to the early 1900s, when the Santa Fe Railroad operated the passenger ferry boats San Pablo, San Pedro, and Ocean Wave, connecting Richmond with San Francisco by water. The boats ran from the San Francisco Ferry Building to the railroad’s Ferry Point terminal in Richmond as a continuation of the company’s passenger train runs.

 

Santa Fe’s Richmond ferry service was discontinued in 1933 due to the Great Depression and, after the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, most ferry service in the Bay Area was discontinued. Some of the larger ferryboats were purchased by the Richmond-San Rafael Ferry Company to shuttle automobiles between Richmond and San Rafael, but this service ceased when the Richmond Bridge opened in 1956.

 

When the Loma Prieta earthquake closed the Bay Bridge for a full month in 1989, emergency ferry service was initiated to several locations, including Richmond. Many people preferred this method of commuting, but once the bridge was reopened, the service was halted.

 

Ten years later, shortly after the establishment of the Water Transit Authority (WTA), Red & White Fleet began private ferry service between Richmond and San Francisco. There were four departures in the morning and evening with limited weekend service. Without a public subsidy, however, the service faced a steep uphill climb financially. The crossing was long—45 minutes for the short eight-mile run. There was a cult following, but it never gained enough popularity to pique the interest of the WTA at the time and the route ended after just a year of service.

 

“I was cheering for it but there is just so much you could do,” said Butt of the 1999 private ferry service. “There weren’t a lot of people, but the ones who rode that ferry were rabid. They loved it and when it ended they started a group to lobby for it, writing letters and showing up at city council meetings.”

 

Even though private ferry service didn’t succeed, it did motivate a dedicated group in the Richmond government to begin an almost 20-year quest to get commuter ferry service reestablished from to San Francisco through the publicly funded WTA. Butt, then a councilmember, was one of those committed people.

 

In the early 2000s, the drumbeat for ferry service had grown louder. The Richmond City Council began adopting resolutions supporting ferry service, and the city’s redevelopment agency proactively pursued feasibility studies to bolster their case to the WTA. “That was the time when we decided we were going to make this happen,” said Butt.

 

In 2004, Contra Costa County voters passed Measure J, which provided $45 million of operating funds for the first 10 years of a future ferry service in Contra Costa County.

 

The establishment of the WETA to replace the WTA in 2007 also helped the cause, as part of its stated mission was (and remains) operating and expanding ferry service on the San Francisco Bay: “WETA is committed to working with cities, communities and stakeholders to establish new ferry routes where the proposed route reduces traffic congestion in the transit corridor, is cost effective and financially viable.”

 

The traffic nightmares of recent years have forced Bay Area transit agencies to step up efforts to improve commute times—especially by taking cars off of the I-580 corridor feeding I-80 and the Bay Bridge maze. Given its location, Richmond ferry service seemed like a logical way to get traffic off the highways.

 

With all of these boxes checked, Richmond was finally designated as a future WETA terminal site and years of planning, debate and delays ensued until officials selected the new location next to the Craneway Pavilion at the waterfront end of the Historic Ford Building. WETA officially approved funding in March 2015 and terminal construction finally began in November 2017.

 

Contra Costa’s Measure J transportation sales tax will fund operations of the Richmond ferry service for at least 10 years through an agreement between CCTA and WETA. This will give the service time to grow without the threat of early termination; new services often experience low ridership at the start until word of mouth leads to widespread acceptance.

 

“The Contra Costa Transportation Authority is proud to be a funding partner of this new ferry service, which is creating a stronger connection between Contra Costa County’s communities and the Bay Area region,” said Federal Glover, CCTA’s Board Chair. “Providing commuters with more options to travel to and from work helps make our county a more desirable place to live, to operate a business and to raise a family.”

 

The Future of Ferries

 

The new Richmond service is just one result of WETA’s $465 million of recent investments in new ferry assets—including new terminals, maintenance facilities and vessels—to support its mission to expand regional ferry service in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

Over the last two years, WETA has added three new vessels to its fleet, opened the Ron Cowan Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility in Alameda and experienced unprecedented demand for ferry service.  WETA now carries nearly three million passengers annually. Two new vessels are on track to join the San Francisco Bay Ferry fleet in the first quarter of 2019, and three more are currently under construction.

       

Looking to the future, WETA has developed a 20-year strategic plan with an ambitious vision that would expand WETA’s regional ferry system to include 44 vessels, 16 terminals and 12 routes that would serve to increase peak period capacity 740 percent by 2035.

A small group of Richmondís women shipbuilders from World War II was on hand for the festivities. Photo by Joel Williams

Mayor Tom Butt of Richmond (seated next to WETA Executive Director Nina Rannells) has been a longtime supporter of ferry transit and has worked to bring ferry service to the city for more than two decades. Photo by Joel Williams